One of President Barrack Obama’s principal communications policy objectives is to "encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media . . . and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum." This has not been the case in the United States Virgin Islands where Jeffrey Prosser of Innovative Communications Corporation owned all locally produced TV stations, the local telephone company, a local cellular telephone company, all cable television stations and the local newspaper. The monopoly is ending, however, with Mr. Prosser’s ongoing bankruptcy, where the Trustee intends to sell the ICC family as a unit. While the president’s website offers no more in the way of specificity, it is commonly understood to be referring to measures that would constrain further consolidation of media ownership, and enhance broadcasters’ local service obligations.
As a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and FCC policies that pre-dated the legislation, the largest broadcast group owners, such as Clear Channel Communications, own hundreds of stations – a scenario that is a dramatic contrast to the prior limit of 7-7-7 per owner, that is seven AMs, seven FMs and seven TV stations.
Media ownership consolidation has triggered vocal opposition from numerous quarters, including minority groups and others. The opposition reached a head in the last few years as the FCC studied ways in which it might seek a further relaxation of the ownership limits, and ultimately adopted a rule to allow newspaper-broadcast ownership combinations in the top-20 markets.
Apart from ownership diversity, there is the matter of the Fairness Doctrine. Before its rescission in 1987, this FCC policy required broadcasters to afford time for the presentation of contrasting views on controversial issues of public importance. The policy represented fertile ground for license challenges by groups viewing a station’s treatment of controversial issues as unbalanced. The policy was rescinded in 1987 on the grounds that it had a chilling effect on the presentation of programming dealing with controversial issues – that is, it was counterproductive – given the proliferation of media outlets since the policy was first adopted.
Attempts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine are unlikely in the current session of Congress. President Obama, for one, has not expressed public support for reinstatement. Nevertheless, 24 senators and 100 members of the House on the Republican side introduced a bill a few days ago that would bar reinstatement of the policy.
More likely than congressional action, however, may be action by the FCC to adopt stricter standards for the broadcast of locally oriented news and public affairs programming. The FCC has had a proceeding underway that looks to do this and, among other things, poses the question as to whether the Commission should mandate the broadcast of a certain amount of locally produced programming. Adoption of such standards by the FCC may be facilitated by the president’s nomination of Julius Genachowski as Chair of the Federal Communications Commission, which will lead to a 3 to 2 Democratic majority on the Commission. Adoption of such standards are likely to be consistent with the president’s agenda for the broadcast media. Depending on the specifics, new localism rules may impact the broadcast of nationally syndicated programs, such as Rush Limbaugh and Air America Radio.
"Under Julius Genachowski’s leadership, the FCC’s compass would point toward the public interest," declared Josh Silver of Free Press. "President-elect Obama has provided a clear roadmap of his media and technology priorities." Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge called him an "outstanding choice," citing Obama’s Technology and Innovation Plan, which Genachowski helped write, as evidence that "he understands the importance of open networks and a regulatory environment that promotes innovation and competition to a robust democracy and a health economy."