In the very first year of the new administration, cable giant Comcast came knocking at the Commission door seeking approval to purchase majority control of the already huge and powerful NBC-Universal media complex. The proposal was daunting in both breadth and depth. The merged entity would include media and telecom; broadcast and broadband; distribution and content (the medium and the message); traditional and new media. I cast the lone Commission vote against this transaction, stating that it was “too much, too big, too powerful, too lacking in benefits for American consumers and citizens.”
TV stations are hot commodities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision freeing up billions of Super PAC and dark money dollars that flow down by the billions to broadcast and cable operators each election cycle. So the bazaar never closes. TVNewsCheck.com recently reported that nearly 300 stations worth over $8 billion changed hands last year alone, up 367 percent in value from 2012. Just recently the FCC has approved major transactions involving Tribune, Sinclair, and Gannett. To make matters worse, companies have devised clever strategies to end-run the FCC’s ownership rules through arrangements that allow them to control stations they do not technically own. The Commission needs to come down hard on these arrangements.
“But wait,” you may be thinking. “Won’t the internet cure the ills of consolidation? Too bad about the shrinkage of traditional media, but they were headed for the ashcan of history anyways.” Barriers to entry are low, everyone possesses a platform on which to speak, and the news circles the globe at lightening pace. Yet we hardly live in a golden age of digital news. I don’t need to tell you that that only a few have managed to find an online model to support the resource-intensive journalism that has been so drastically diminished in traditional media. Ironically, the primary source of the news and information continues to be newspaper and TV newsrooms. In Losing the News, Harvard’s esteemed Alex Jones estimates that “85 percent of professionally-reported accountability news comes from newspapers.” The problem is, of course, that these traditional sources are providing much less news than they once did.
The internet is still an adolescent. It will produce more revolutionary changes in the news, but not by continuing down the road it is presently on. The internet is at a vulnerable crossroads, and decisions made in the public realm generally, and at the FCC specifically, will have as much to do with its success as will innovation and technology.
The challenge is two-fold. One is much greater deployment of the broadband that enables internet communications. The other is guaranteeing a truly open internet (often uninformatively called “network neutrality”). Some would have you believe that America is a veritable broadband wonderland, but stubborn facts belie their optimism. In fact, our country has fallen from leader to laggard in broadband. American consumers are paying more and receiving less than broadband customers in other industrial nations, thanks in no small part to industry-friendly FCC deregulations that passed over objections like mine. Broadband is the critical infrastructure that will fuel 21st century jobs, health, education and democracy, just as roads, bridges, railways, highways, and rural electricity fueled the earlier growth of our nation. But until we develop a sense of mission to bring high-speed, low-cost broadband to everyone —no matter the particular circumstances of their individual lives—the future will belong to others. This is partly an FCC job, but also that of our top government. Our forbears moved America forward with infrastructure often supported by innovative private-public partnerships. It is time to do this again.
In 2002 the FCC decided there would be almost no oversight of the broadband highways that deliver the internet to us, believing that the invisible hand of the marketplace would get the job done. Stunningly, the agency actually determined that broadband wasn’t even “telecommunications.” It was instead an “information service,” which meant that consumer protections (like ubiquitous service, reasonable prices, privacy, public safety, and competitive choice) that applied to previous generations’ telephone service would not be required as communications went digital. If consumers wished to enjoy such protections for broadband, they would have to start all over—in a decidedly hostile political and regulatory climate. No other nation allowed such a ludicrous debate over communications semantics to shackle its broadband development.