Commentary

The Big Media Boogyman

By Adam D. Thierer and Clyde Wayne Crews Jr.
May 27, 2003

A heated debate over the relaxation of media ownership rules that artificially restrict media business activities is set to culminate in a June 2 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission. Consumer groups already decry what they see as growing media concentration or even monopolization, and caution that our democracy is somehow at risk of being dictated to by a handful of media barons. How real are these fears?

In reality, the media are less concentrated and more competitive today than they were 30 years ago. And consumers are unambiguously better off. Consider two families, circa 1973 versus 2003, and the media and entertainment options available to them. The 1973 family could flip through three major network television stations, or tune in to a PBS station or a UHF channel or two. By comparison, today’s families can take advantage of a 500-plus channel universe of cable and satellite-delivered options, order movies on demand, and check out a variety of specialized news, sports, or entertainment programming — in addition to those same three networks.

Or, these hypothetical families could just listen to the radio together. Seven thousand stations existed in 1970 nationwide to choose from. Today more than 13,000 stations exist and subscription-based music services are delivered nationwide and uninterrupted via digital satellite.

And then, of course, there’s the Internet and the astonishing cornucopia of communications, information, and entertainment services the World Wide Web offers today’s families. In the media Dark Ages of 1973, it would have taken a great deal of time and money to publish your own newsletter. Today, the Internet gives every man, woman, and child the ability to be a one-person publishing house or broadcasting station, and communicate with the entire planet. Instead of going to the library to retrieve information, as our hypothetical 1973 family might have done, today the library comes to us as the Net puts a world of information at our fingertips. While the 1973 family could read the local newspaper together, today’s families can view thousands of newspapers from communities across the planet.

And the list goes on: video recorders, DVD players, interactive TVs and cell phones, MP3 players, and a seemingly endless array of other portable/wireless computing and communications devices are available to us today that the families of 1973 only dreamed of, or saw in a “Star Trek” episode.

But while America’s mass media marketplace is evolving rapidly, the same cannot be said for the regime of rules that govern it, which are stuck in regulatory time warp. Federal regulations that limit how much of the national market can be served by broadcast and cable companies, or prevent a company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market, or prohibit a television network from buying another network, should be abolished. Why should media companies be forced to play by a distinct set of random ownership rules that we impose on no other industry?

These rules have become historic anachronisms that ignore new market conditions and the intense competition for our eyes and ears. Indeed, far from living in a world of “information scarcity” that some fear, we now live in a world of information overload. The number of information and entertainment options at our disposal has almost become overwhelming and most of us struggle to figure out ways to filter and manage all the information we can choose from in an average day. It is important to keep such facts in mind when debating changes to the archaic media ownership rules that the FCC is considering revising. Even as the underlying business structures and relationships in this industry continue to change, the one undeniable reality of our modern media marketplace is that information and entertainment are commodities that cannot be monopolized. Accordingly, the FCC should relegate these outdated media ownership rules to the dustbin of telecom history.

Adam Thierer is the director of telecommunications studies and Clyde Wayne Crews is the director of technology studies at the Cato Institute and the authors of What’s Yours Is Mine: Open Access and the Rise of Infrastructure Socialism (Cato Institute, 2003).