Voiceover: Squeeze is on to prove harm of consolidation


In a strike-distracted, holiday-bound Hollywood, the latest news out of the FCC has hardly made a dent.

Yet the effects of the two decisions the regulators handed down Tuesday, if upheld by the courts, might arguably be much greater than the impact of the writers work stoppage.

As many had long intuited, the commission under chairman Kevin Martin voted along party lines (3-2) to lift the cross-ownership ban, thus allowing companies to own both a newspaper and a TV station in the top 20 markets. The second decision came as more of a surprise in that Martin sided with his two Democratic commissioner colleagues to tighten, rather than loosen, the reins on cable companies, disallowing any one player from controlling more than 30% of systems nationwide.

In practical terms, the rulings were an early Christmas present for Rupert Murdoch, who can now be reassured he will have permanent waivers to own not only his two TV stations in New York but also both the New York Post and the recently acquired Wall Street Journal.

It was a setback for Brian Roberts' cable goliath Comcast, which has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade, but will now, unless overruled by the courts, have to lower its acquisition targets.

Murdoch probably should come up with a stocking stuffer for his D.C. lobbyists; Roberts might want to think about ashes and switches for his.

Despite the ho-hum reaction here so far, my bet is that the first decision eventually will raise enough hackles that the courts or Congress will be obliged to take up the issue yet again. And this time around, the opponents of the ruling will have to work harder.

The rationale used by Martin & Co. to justify the lifting of the media cross-ownership ban was twofold -- that there is a greater plethora of news outlets that the consumer can access nowadays than ever before and hence diversity is not at risk; and, at the same time, the relaxation will financially buoy the stricken newspaper sector.

On the second point, not even newspaper owners who have seen their advertising revenue slide, dry up or defect to cyberspace seem to think the ruling will make much difference.

But it's the first point that should cause the most heated debate.

Yes, there are many more outlets out there, but it can be argued that the key ones are owned by the same dwindling coterie of media players. (Time Warner is the parent of CNN; News Corp. operates Fox News Channel and Fox Business Channel; GE's NBC Universal controls CNBC and MSNBC, to name the most obvious.)

As for the news on the Internet, many of the most trafficked sites are simply repurposed Web sites owned by these very same media congloms.

That's the easy part of the argument to make: What's harder is for the opponents of this FCC decision to come up with concrete evidence of how media consolidation has constricted or distorted the range of viewpoints presented to the public on crucial issues.

If they can, for example, make a case that the staunchly pro-war positions that the majority of the American press took in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq (and, in some news quarters, the lack of patience for dissension on that subject) was in any way a result of the narrowing of media ownership, then that would be a telling and persuasive argument.

Or, from a completely different perspective, if they can connect the ever-increasing trivialization or tabloidization of TV news (think the obsession with Britney Spears or Paris Hilton or any number of other silly celebs) to the consolidation of the media into so few hands, then indeed they might sway some minds.

In other words, it's easy to rail against media consolidation; to prove that its effects really are pernicious, it's time to see some persuasive evidence.