Saturday, December 12, 2015

Who Owns The Airwaves?


Les Moonves is the CEO of CBS. In the clip above he explains why the media giants have been egging on Herr Trumpf on to make increasingly destructive statements that shred U.S. social cohesion. Obviously it's all about the bottom line, his company's bottom line, and the bottom lines of all the media conglomerates. If Trumpf were to wake up and decide to call on his fans to rise up and firebomb mosques, would CBS and the other media giants cover it as news? Well, of course they would. That's what they've turned into. (Moonves and I grew up at the same time in Valley Stream on Long Island. I feel confident in saying that this great-nephew of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, would likely draw the line if Trumpf were to say anything that smacked of violent anti-Semitism.

I remember growing up in a country-- this country-- when radio and TV networks had some obligation to serve the public interest in return for being permitted to lease the public airwaves. That ended when corporate shill Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, giving unimaginable power over national discourse to a handful of powerful private corporations. A couple years after the Telecommunications Act went into effect, Warren Sirota explained why it was turning out to be a bust. He warned people to ignore "the red herring" of the Decency Act" part of the bill and reminded us that "If one is truly concerned with how well our communications infrastructure serves consumers, what will really shape our future is the elimination of barriers between the industry's segments, e.g., local and long distance services, broadcast and cable television, etc." Looking back almost a decade after passage, Common Cause asserted that "the Telecom Act failed to serve the public and did not deliver on its promise of more competition, more diversity, lower prices, more jobs and a booming economy.
Instead, the public got more media concentration, less diversity, and higher prices.

Over 10 years, the legislation was supposed to save consumers $550 billion, including $333 billion in lower long-distance rates, $32 billion in lower local phone rates, and $78 billion in lower cable bills. But cable rates have surged by about 50 percent, and local phone rates went up more than 20 percent.

Industries supporting the new legislation predicted it would add 1.5 million jobs and boost the economy by $2 trillion. By 2003, however, telecommunications’ companies’ market value had fallen by about $2 trillion, and they had shed half a million jobs.

And study after study has documented that profit-driven media conglomerates are investing less in news and information, and that local news in particular is failing to provide viewers with the information they need to participate in their democracy.

Why did this happen? In some cases, industries agreed to the terms of the Act and then went to court to block them. By leaving regulatory discretion to the Federal Communications Commission, the Act gave the FCC the power to issue rules that often sabotaged the intent of Congress. Control of the House passed from Democrats to Republicans, more sympathetic to corporate arguments for deregulation. And while corporate special interests all had a seat at the table when this bill was being negotiated, the public did not. Nor were average citizens even aware of this legislation’s great impact on how they got their entertainment and information, and whether it would foster or discourage diversity of viewpoints and a marketplace of ideas, crucial to democratic discourse.

Now, as Congress once again takes up major legislation to change telecommunications policy, and as it revisits the Telecom Act, major industries have had nearly a decade to reinforce their relationships with lawmakers and the Administration through political donations and lobbying:
Since 1997, just eight of the country’s largest and most powerful media and telecommunications companies, their corporate parents, and three of their trade groups, have spent more than $400 million on political contributions and lobbying in Washington, according to a Common Cause analysis of federal records.

Verizon Communications, SBC Communications Inc., AOL Time Warner, General Electric Co./NBC, News Corp./Fox, Viacom Inc./CBS, Comcast Corp., Walt Disney Co./ABC, and the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the United States Telecom Association together gave nearly $45 million in federal political donations since 1997. Of that total, $17.8 million went to Democrats and $26.9 million went to Republicans.

These eight companies and three trade associations also spent more than $358 million on lobbying in Washington, since 1998, when lobbying expenditures were first required to be disclosed.
All this investment once again gives radio and television broadcasters, telephone companies, long-distance providers, cable systems and Internet companies a huge advantage over average citizens.

While these corporations have different, and sometimes opposing views on individual provisions of a new Telecom Act, their overriding desire is for less federal regulation. A new Telecommunications Act could be written “in a matter of months, not years,” and be a “very short bill,” focused on an almost complete deregulation of the telecommunications industry, said F. Duane Ackerman, chairman and CEO of BellSouth Corporation. “The basic issue before the Congress is simple,” Ackerman said. “Can competition do a better job than traditional utility regulation?”

But before Congress listens to this call for less regulation, it is important to understand the changes Telecommunications Act of 1996 put into motion, and how those changes drastically redrew the media landscape, often to the detriment of the public.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996:
Lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own. The cap had been set at 40 stations. It made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of play lists, and less local news.

Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach. One company had been allowed to own stations that reached up to a quarter of U.S. TV households. The Act raised that national cap to 35 percent. These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration. Together, just five companies-- Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, News Corp, NBC and AOL, owner of Time Warner, now control 75 percent of all prime-time viewing.

The Act deregulated cable rates. Between 1996 and 2003, those rates have skyrocketed, increasing by nearly 50 percent.

The Act permitted the FCC to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules. As cable systems increased the number of channels, the broadcast networks aggressively expanded their ownership of cable networks with the largest audiences. Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source 
of competition.

The Act gave broadcasters, for free, valuable digital TV licenses that could have brought in up to $70 billion to the federal treasury if they had been auctioned off. Broadcasters, who claimed they deserved these free licenses because they serve the public, have largely ignored their public interest obligations, failing to provide substantive local news and public affairs reporting and coverage of congressional, local and state elections.

The Act reduced broadcasters’ accountability to the public by extending the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years, and made it more difficult for citizens to challenge those license renewals.
“Those who advocated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 promised more competition and diversity, but the opposite happened,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. “Citizens, excluded from the process when the Act was negotiated in Congress, must have a seat at the table as Congress proposes to revisit this law.”
Totally related: from January through November, the corporate media's evening news shows on ABC, NBC and CBS gave Herr Trumpf 234 minutes of coverage but only gave Bernie a total of 10 minutes. Why do you think that is? It sure has nothing to do with serving the public interest!

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At 12:16 AM, Anonymous ap215 said...

You're right on the money the Telecom Act along with Reagan getting rid of The Fairness Doctrine has been a disaster so many hateful networks now who continue to promote with repeated RW talking points pick your poison One America, Fox, CC, Sinclair & on & on & on.

I would like to see some Real Media Reform initiatives proposed to the voters & bypass our corrupt congress this whole mess must change.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger U.S. Citizen said...

Great blog. Really articulates well what many of us knew, in general, but lists the specifics. Clinton was\is a corporatist. Unforturnately, Bill and Hillary joined the "vast right-wing (corporate) conspiracy".

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Kim Kaufman said...

In 2012, I volunteered for a (national) project to go to my local tv station to find out who was actually paying for the political ads (information that should be found in their public files). I went to CBS in Studio City. I was met by the Chief Engineer and taken to a small room off the lobby with 6' high cabinets full of binders with the public files (CBS also owns and operates KCAL). Soon the PR person joined him. It was February. California's primary was in June. He said there had been no political ads yet. And none since the governor's race in 2010. He looked at the PR person and smiled and said, "We love Meg Whitman. She paid for our operating budget for a whole year."

That, in a nutshell, explains the relationship between the media and the political class. All "the media" cares about is making their money during this election season where the money flows freely in their direction.

It's why I have spent six years on the board of KPFK/Pacifica. The five stations owned by Pacifica remains the last bastion of non-corporate, independent radio stations in the U.S. Alas, I think not for long.


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