The Commission is worried about the future of the broadcast media, and they are trying to figure out what they can do. The last two weeks have been full of news about actions being taken by the FCC which may or may not lead to a reshaping of broadcasting as we know it. We wrote about the discussion of re-purposing some or all of the television spectrum for wireless broadband users. We also told you about the workshops to be held this week as the first step in the Commission’s Quadrennial review of it multiple ownership rules – looking at whether to allow more media consolidation to help broadcasters compete in the new media landscape or, conversely, whether there should be a reexamination of the existing rules to make them more restrictive against big media. Last week, the Commission announced two more actions – the appointment of a Senior Advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to study "the future of media in a changing technological landscape", and a workshop on "Capitalization Strategies for Small and Disadvantaged Businesses." What is the impact of all of these actions?
The appointment of the Senior Advisor, Steven Waldman, is perhaps the most interesting action. Mr. Waldman, the founder of the website Belief.net (recently sold to News Corp), is charged with determining how the FCC can assure that the media will serve the public interest in the 21st century, and that "all Americans receive the information, educational content, and news they seek." He is instructed to work with all Bureaus to determine how best to implement these ambitious goals. It is interesting that, while one might be inclined to look at this with the assumption that his charge is to look at broadcasting, the public notice announcing his appointment and his charge does not once use the word "broadcast" or "broadcasting." Instead, it talks almost exclusively about the new media and technology and the potential that they have for serving the public good.
This reliance on the new media, and the mantra that is being chanted regularly by the new Commission, seemingly approaches media issues from a position where there is an assumption (perhaps rebuttable, but there nevertheless), that the new media is where all the action is and where all the attention should be placed. This is reflected by the proposals (about which we wrote here, and which have gained much press since we wrote about these ideas) to re-allot television spectrum to broadband, with the idea that this will serve the new media at the expense of the dinosaurs in the broadcast industry – exchanging a sure thing that serves virtually the entire country for a promise of service in the future. It also ties into a feeling that seems to be pervading government, that the "traditional media" can no longer be counted on to serve the needs of the public. Not only is there this appointment, but there is also the upcoming workshop at the FTC on how newsgathering will survive in the future in light of the technological and economic challenges to newspapers and other traditional media. Perhaps, in the words of Monty Python, it’s time for the broadcast industry to rally and cry – "not dead yet" – as a vibrant though challenged industry is being almost assumed by the regulators to be out of business.
The Capital Formation workshop is perhaps a good sign that the Commission has not totally abandoned the broadcast industry, as the Public Notice announcing that event does specifically refer to the broadcast industry. The lack of financing to acquire broadcast stations has been cited by many observers as the biggest impediment to minorities and other new entrants getting into broadcast ownership. We are bound to hear those issues discussed in this week’s workshops on the new multiple ownership proceeding. While the Capital Formation workshop may be one way to address that deficit, we do note that the companies who are identified as participating do not seem to have a broadcast background, but from their descriptions in the public notice, they all seem to be more invested in technology companies. Will potential owners who attend the session be disappointed by the lack of broadcast investors who are present?
These actions show the conflicted nature of the FCC when it comes to broadcasting. What kind of reform is possible, and what kind of broadcast industry will we see in the future? Will regulation recognize the change in technology and allow broadcasters to adapt to the changes, or will regulation force that change, or will broadcasters continue to be regulated as they always have been (or as they once were 25 years ago as some proponents of more regulation seem to suggest)? These will no doubt be questions addressed on these pages many times in the coming months.