02.20.2014 14

What the heck do we need a Federal Communications Commission for?

Broadcast_QuestionsBy Robert Romano

Whether it is net neutrality, the Comcast-Time Warner merger or its proposed “Multi-Market Study of Critical Needs” receiving a lot of attention thanks to a Wall Street Journal oped by Ajit Pai, the sole Republican commissioner of the agency — the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sure is making lots of waves these days.

Perhaps a question everyone should be asking, though, is why do we need an agency to determine whether Verizon can charge Netflix for broadcasting on its server? Or to determine if Comcast-Time Warner will somehow take up too large a share of the marketplace?

Or to figure out if, on the basis of media ownership, “critical information needs” are being served to so-called “underserved” communities?

Who cares?

Just consider the absurdity of the study Pai called attention to. Specifically, the FCC apparatchiks will be attempting to, per the study proposal, “ascertain the process by which stories are selected, station priorities (for content, production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias, perceived percent of news dedicated to each of the eight [critical information needs], and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.”

Writes Pai in the Journal, “The FCC says the study is merely an objective fact-finding mission. The results will inform a report that the FCC must submit to Congress every three years on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry. This claim is peculiar. How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the CIN study include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?”

Good questions. Perhaps an even better, deeper one is why we even need an agency to supposedly “eliminate barriers” in the communications industry in the first place?

The Communications Act was created in 1934 to “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service…”

The agency was chartered on the premise there was limited bandwidth of the public airwaves and barriers to market entry. Yet, with thousands of television channels, radio stations, and millions of websites including web-streaming services to choose from, and seemingly limitless ways to transmit via satellite, broadband, and other means, it seems the only limits that once existed were merely technological.

In the end, innovation achieved what the FCC never could. Now the only barrier to broadcasting is a video phone and a free Youtube account. There is no need to regulate media ownership when everyone has the ability to create and distribute their own media.

Don’t like Comcast? Switch to Verizon. Or Cox. Or any of the multitude of other providers out there that are competing on price. Tired of paying for cable? Get Netflix. Or Amazon Prime. They have movies and television shows. Want every football and hockey game live? Get Directv.

There is no lack of competition. And with the limitless technology at our disposal, there never will be. That is, unless government screws it all up.

Every four years the FCC is required to produce “limits on the number of broadcast stations (radio and TV) an entity can own, as well as limits on the common ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers… [and] to determine whether the rules are in the public interest and to repeal or modify any regulation it determines does not meet this criteria,” according to the agency’s website.

In that vein the “Multi-Market Study of Critical Needs” is not unusual at all. It is one of hundreds of studies and analyses the agency does to provide information for its quadrennial review.

The last such review in 2010 included clearly at least the stated intent of the rules: “The Commission has relied on its media ownership rules to ensure that diverse viewpoints and perspectives are available to the American people in the content they receive over the broadcast airwaves.”

It goes further: “The Commission has regulated media ownership as a means of enhancing viewpoint diversity based on the premise that diffuse ownership among media outlets promotes the presentation of a larger number of viewpoints in broadcast content than would be available in the case of a more concentrated ownership structure.”

So, looking at the content media companies put out there to discern if their viewpoints are “diverse” enough has always been at the heart of what the agency does. The multi-market study is no different.

The eight so-called “critical information needs” the study will be investigating are news reporting on local emergencies, crime, safety, and security plus “health and welfare; education – including information about schools; transportation – including available options, schedules and costs; economic opportunities, including job openings, job training and information and small business assistance; environment, including air and water quality, and access to parks and other recreation; civic information, including what civic institutions and opportunities to associate with other people are available; political information, including information about candidates at all levels, information about public policy initiatives affecting your community and neighborhood.”

Why is this so important to the agency? The proposal tells us: “The core goal of the media market census is to determine whether and how FCC-regulated and related media construct news and public affairs to provide for [critical information needs] across different communities. This includes a thorough study of local media ecologies, with special emphasis on performance and access/barriers to critical information needs.”

To that end, they will ask the following questions: “What media is actually included in the media ecology being studied? What specific type of content dominates the media ecologies? How is the ownership of that market characterized? What is the flow of information within the ecology?”

Why are they concerned about ownership? The study proposal mentions ownership and station owners as a key variable more than a dozen times.

The implicit hypothesis is that ownership drives content, which, of course, makes sense. If you own a newspaper, you probably would want it to reflect your editorial viewpoint.

Therefore, it appears that the Commission is attempting to determine how best to regulate ownership to achieve specific content outcomes, and dare I say, political outcomes. For more on the political implications of news coverage, see: News That Matters by Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder (1989) that found network news coverage unquestionably shapes political attitudes.

Yet despite the content-based nature of how the agency looks at media ownership, upon congressional inquiries into the multi-market study the Commission felt compelled to issue a statement saying it “has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make. We’re closely reviewing the proposed research design to determine if an alternative approach is merited.”

But based on the legal and regulatory mission, why would the agency suddenly do that? They’re supposed to be monitoring content, aren’t they? That’s what the regulations says.

Has the FCC suddenly realized that meddling with media ownership affects editorial outcomes and that this might be undesirable? Or be an unconstitutional intrusion into the freedom of speech and of the press? 80 years into its undertaking, this is a startling admission coming from the agency.

However, there is nothing to suggest the FCC is backing off the new study or its goal to regulate media ownership to shape the viewpoints the American people are allowed to hear.

All the agency said was there is some sort of review taking place. Nothing about a delay or anything else. The study is moving forward. If they do pull it, it will just be replaced by an “alternative approach” to achieve the same end.

The problem is the content-based mission is completely wrong. This is not simply about policing limited FM, AM, and VHF signals, and allocating stations to particular frequencies on the spectrum. This goes way beyond that.

So, perhaps the Comcast-Time Warner merger will be approved, but with a condition that the new company be “net neutral.” And new guidelines dictating how many radio stations or to what degree cross-ownership of print publications may occur will be published.

But all of that avoids the central question: What the heck do we need a Federal Communications Commission to monitor content for?

Robert Romano is the senior editor of Americans for Limited Government. 

  • reggiec

    The federal government never does a study unless they want an excuse to interfere. Read censorship by forcing the press, TV, radio to cover something. Then they say we are not censoring. Censoring would be not allowing you to cover something. It is still a violation the First Amendment freedom of the press.

  • Robert J. Romano

    I tend to agree. I suppose the issue I’m noting is that there’s nothing new about the study. The decades-old law and regulations state they must take into consideration the viewpoint and content on broadcast mediums in determining media ownership restrictions. The question is two-fold: 1) Why monitor content when determining ownership restrictions? And, 2) why have ownership restrictions when the amount of content that can be distributed using modern technology appears to be unlimited?

  • pduffy

    The FCC was supposed to control frequency allocation – and nothing more. But as the founders feared, this monster took control of ‘content’. But in reality the U.S. Constitution does not grant authority to the federal government to even allocate frequencies without a constitutional amendment granting them this power – they just took it because nobody resisted. The government does not own the airwaves, but it thinks it does. No matter what advancement in science or engineering that free humans may think up, this government TAKES IT OVER. The FAA is another example where they took control of the skies the minute the airplane was invented, as if they were God himself and owned the heavens and the earth. The question now is WHO will put this monster back in the box it crawled out of?

  • Florida Jim

    Go9vernment has grown and grown and grown under every administration it is time for us to review every single agency, every single employee, every single regulation, every single tax, every single thing about our government and justify their being kept or closed. No one in Washington has the cahones to do it , so I will please contact me to begin.

  • Radio waves and frequency is what the FCC was all about. In the 20’s and later they had to regulate radio, because some guy in another town could start broadcasting on your frequency and jam your signal.

    The FCC assigned frequencies, this is how they regulated stations, you could not get a license with out their approval, and then … somehow when television came along some broadcasters had people who said things that did not meet with public approval, so the FCC had to make more regulations.

    IF someone said bugger, they could fine you our put your license at risk of being taken away if you did not make the necessary changes.

    Not only that, they had to regulate who worked at these broadcast stations, in order to do so a person had to pass an electronics test. I myself hold an FCC Radio Telephone license, and let me tell you its a hard one to pass, becasue its based on Tube technology, and most schools don’t teach that today.

    Fact is the way we communicate has changed, but as long as news organizations are required to broadcast … even just with enough power to reach the cable companies receiving facility, then you have to meet FCC standards.

    The way the laws are written, every channel on TV must be first broadcast before it can be on cable and the internet and before you can see it the FCC must approve of those who are allowed to send the signal.

    The only exceptions are for those who upload directly to the net. As far as I know they still have not written regulations for that yet. But major news agencies all begin by transmitting so until we stand up and take back the bureaucracy from the Obama administration and all future executive branches the FCC is going to do as they please.

    The FCC is working at the will of the executive branch, Obama has appointed its director and his whole time at its head he has been working on regulations that are more friendly to Obama’s goal.

  • Sharon

    Conventionofstates.com is the answer. to take back power from Federal Government.
    Please go on their website.

  • 3Curmudgeon3

    This isn’t the only government agency that needs to go.

  • bahndon

    More Government, more regulations.

  • bob570

    These “Studies” is what the Obama Dictatorship does when they want to either put a Moratorium, on something their Friends don’t like, or stop it all together like the XL Pipeline. Like the Moratorium on drilling in the Gulf, so they could study the effects of drilling in the gulf, which we had already been doing for decades. Or like Governor Cuomo in New York who has a Moratorium on Hydro-Fracturing to study its effects even though the state has been doing it for 40 years. While disregarding the study the EPA, had already done, along with numerous others, which gave Fracking a clean bill of health.

  • Oldcrow

    99% of Government agencies are either redundant or useless and should be dismantled. DOD, DOJ are the only ones that should be in existence. They are the only ones that perform a constitutional duty ie… uphold our rights, enforce contracts and provide for the common defense.

  • A ham radio enthusiast

    It’s for public safety that frequencies are controlled! How would you like to be laying on the road bleeding to death without aid because some A$$#ole is busy talking to his buddy with a 1000 watt transmitter on the frequencies allotted to emergency vehicles. Or being on approach to NY airport, one of 20 or so planes being controlled in the airspace when all of a sudden some guy with a 2k watt amp tries to call Iceland on the frequency used by the airport? There are numerous reasons for having the FCC and allowing them to control broadcasting!

  • Warrior

    Actually, I would place Mr. Pai in the “whistleblower” category. Wonder if he’ll be “replaced” soon by the “boner”?

  • Robert J. Romano

    Read the entire story not just the headline. We’re not questioning the need to allocate frequencies. We’re questioning the content-based criteria for restricting media ownership. You can allocate frequencies without attempting to control who owns television and radio stations on the basis of viewpoint and content.

  • Chris Church

    There is competition if you are fine with bad or worse. There is no actual competition in the ISP space. It’s basically Cable company or phone company, and they both make sure customers are getting the short end of the stick.

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