Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, June 01, 2003  

Tomorrow's the big FCC decision. Real big--Powell's already called it. Because I was noodling literary last week, I didn't comment on this last week. (Well, that and because everyone else was already commenting on it.) To add just a bit to the discussion, let's roll the tape on what Powell told NPR.

On why further consolidation is good for the consumer.
"Free, over-the-air TV and radio is a precious service to the American public, and if all the pay television and pay commercial services become dominant, I think we really run the risk that quality programming leaves free television and finds its way into cable. And I think consumers shouldn’t have $60-80 a month to see a sports season or to see important dramas or news events. So I think that's a simple answer to why the consumer will benefit, because I think if we fail in our task then free, over-the-air TV will be in significant trouble in the long term."

Shocked? The interviewer, Renee Montaigne, was. She asked, "Correct me if I’m wrong, but AOL/Time Warner, Disney, Fox--they don’t seem to be struggling along."

"You know it's interesting, they’re big companies, but I don’t think they’re as well off as people think. And by the way, I'd like to make clear: it’s not our exercise to make them profitable. That by no means is any consideration of ours. But I think the more important statistic is audience fragmentation. Free, over-the-air television used to command something like 80% of the prime time viewing audience. Today they command less than 50% of that audience. This year for the first time in history cable television exceeded the prime time advertising share."

He later added:

"You hear a lot about the people believe the public owns the airwaves--and the public interest model--which I subscribe to 100%. But I think what's happening increasingly is your small town broadcaster is finding himself literally competing with the Sopranos on Sunday night on cable, competing with ESPN and the NBA basketball season on cable. And more and more of those consumers are choosing to pay for that medium to get that diversity rather than television. One response of the free, over-the-air folks is that they try to increase their ownership because it’s a way of increasing capacity, and that they'll have more to program and that they’ll have a better competitive opportunity against the other entities."

It's a fairly brazen interview, because Powell hasn't attempted to make an argument that even passingly nods its head at logic. Midway through a thought about how he's offering a massive giveaway to his buddies at Fox, he seems to realize that he's in an interview with NPR. He corrects things by pointing out that "audience fragmentation" has led to a situation in which broadcast TV no longer holds a monopoly. He seems to be arguing that the viewing audience has a dangerous diversity of choice--something the FCC will fix lickety split. (Montaigne didn't bother to point out that it's not the number of channels people are worried about, but the diminishing number of companies owning them.)

It's been such a bizarre process, so reviled by anyone outside of a Time/Warner boardroom, that congress is likely to get involved. I suppose that's a good thing, but I'm not terribly excited by the prospect. Instead, it's probably a good time to send our local PBS affiliates a check...

[Update: It passed, 3-2.]

posted by Jeff | 8:53 PM |
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