Commentary: Keeping Little Voices In Big Media

The FCC should at least install minimum guarantees for independent opinions

It's far from A sure thing that Comcast Corp. (CMCSK ) will win control of Walt Disney Co. (DIS ). But if it does, the combination of the cable-TV giant with Disney's ABC broadcast network would take Big Media to a frightening new level. And if regulators and the courts continue along the path of deregulation, this Goliath could one day buy a major newspaper chain -- controlling not only what Americans watch on TV but what they read, too.

That's too much power in the hands of one company, especially in a democracy that thrives on the spectrum of viewpoints that competing media companies can provide. The government should nip such concentration in the bud and block this deal from going forward. Problem is, the current Federal Communications Commission will never go that far. Still, the agency at least should install minimum guarantees to give fresh, independent viewpoints an airing.

Don't let those 500 cable channels and countless Web sites fool you. Although cable television and the Internet have spawned a proliferation of outlets, they don't always translate into a wider range of viewpoints. "The age of diversity is gone," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism Washington. "With more outlets but fewer owners, we're just getting the product of a few owners spread across different places."

Still, it's not too late to ensure the survival of a chorus of competing voices that a well-informed electorate needs. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, now reviewing challenges to new FCC deregulation rules, has a historic opportunity to hold back the continuing erosion of news diversity. Meanwhile, the FCC itself should impose restrictions on a prospective Comcast-Disney combo, requiring the giant to carry news and other programming from independent sources.

The most important issue in the court case in Philadelphia is a pending FCC rule that would allow local TV broadcast stations and newspapers to merge. If that rule goes through, a community's two dominant sources of local news would reside under one roof, and one voice could replace two vibrant competing ones -- especially when the owner melds newsroom resources to save money.

According to a 2002 Nielsen Media Research Inc. survey commissioned by the FCC, about 35% of consumers rely on local broadcast TV as their primary source of local news, while about 30% rely on newspapers, 25% on radio, and the rest on the Internet. Combining a monopoly newspaper with a leading TV station means that the bulk of a city's local news would come from the same company. And the FCC wants to go even further, allowing that same company to own two or three local TV stations in mid-sized and large markets. The result: One media giant could control the coverage of everything from state political races to local referendums. Fortunately, the Philadelphia court is already skeptical of the FCC's newspaper-broadcast rule. It should strike down both the cross-ownership and the TV concentration rule.

If Comcast buys Disney, viewers would face a different type of concentration. Historically, cable companies have always wanted to fill their pipes with their own programming, often to the exclusion of others'. A Comcast-Disney deal, together with Time Warner and News Corp., would create a closed and powerful oligarchy. Each media conglomerate owns must-see shows and far-flung cable or satellite systems. The new trio could form an unholy alliance, where each member uses its command of channel space to gain the others' marquee programming.

Even in a universe of 100-plus channels, such a cabal would leave little room for fresh voices. That's why the FCC should nix the deal. But since that's not likely to happen, regulators at minimum should ensure that potentially important new voices -- such as a latter-day CNN -- can still make it. The FCC should require large cable and satellite programmer-distributors to reserve, say, at least 10% of their channel capacity for independent programming not owned by the other giants.

While these fixes wouldn't cure all the ills of Big Media, they'd be a start. Citizens can't afford the dangers of unchecked consolidation among their news providers. The feds and the courts need to wake up and stand guard.

By Catherine Yang

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