Media Diversity and the FCC: Background
Restraining media concentration is central to the mission of the FCC, the federal agency that regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable; and media ownership, including how many stations one company can own in each market and the cross-ownership of different sectors, such as broadcast stations and daily newspapers.
Under the Communications Act of 1934, the FCC is charged with promoting “localism” in broadcast media and enhancing democracy by insuring that broadcasters “present those views and voices which are representative of [their] community and which would otherwise…be barred from the airwaves.” The civil rights community pushed the FCC to address this mandate and promote greater ownership and employment in broadcasting for women and minorities.
The Communications Act of 1996 substantially deregulated national radio ownership rules and eased national TV ownership limits. The law also forced the FCC to consider whether to revise local rules on how many media properties one company can operate in any one community. The 1996 Act also required the FCC to conduct biennial (now quadrennial) reviews of all remaining broadcast ownership rules “to determine whether any of such rules are necessary in the public interest as a result of competition.” These reviews have become the battleground for intense fights at the FCC, Congress, and the courts for the last several years.
For the biennial review in 2002, the FCC consolidated all of its pending broadcast ownership proceedings so that it could review every single broadcast ownership rule. Despite broad public opposition, in June 2003, the FCC voted 3-2 to lift broadcast cross-ownership restrictions, loosen limits on local broadcast ownership, and permit one company to own stations reaching 45 percent of the national audience.
In response to the public outcry, a bipartisan majority in the Senate voted to overturn the rule changes. Congress eventually reached a compromise -- limiting the number of stations one company could own to 39 percent of the national audience.
Then in June 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the other changes to the media ownership limits and directed the FCC to conduct a new review. Among other things, the court directed the FCC to address the specific proposals for promoting diversity in ownership that had been presented to, but not considered by, the agency.
In June 2006, the FCC initiated a new media ownership proceeding. Many civil rights and public interest groups believe the agency is not being specific enough in its inquiry to generate relevant comments, nor is it devoting adequate resources to create a full record on the issue of minority and female ownership. Some members of Congress have requested that the Commission complete a consideration of the issues of minority and small business ownership before taking up the wider media ownership issue, but the FCC has not yet agreed to do so.