By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison sure sounded like a Democrat last week when she bitch-slapped the boys at Belo. In the wake of the FCC's ruling that a media conglomerate can own enough TV stations to reach 45 percent of the U.S. market (it used to be 35 percent), the Texas Republican told the Senate Commerce Committee that she supported a bill that would undo what the EffinCC did.
Why is she against companies like Belo buying more stations? I'll let her explain.
"In Dallas," she says, "the Belo Corporation owns the major local ABC affiliate, WFAA. It has the largest market share of viewers. It also owns The Dallas Morning News, our only daily newspaper, and recent FCC statistics indicate that 74 percent of the public considers TV and newspapers to be the most important sources of news."
Now, you may say, a majority also thinks President Bush didn't lie about knowing whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But let's not let that bog down her point. Let's also not get sidetracked by the fact that KXAS-TV Channel 5 is whomping the Belo affiliate in the ratings at 10 p.m.
"When we are talking about media concentration, we are talking about the people's ability to have a lot of information and make their decisions," she continues. "And I think what the FCC did is absolutely wrong...I think the whole ruling [is] potentially dangerous to media diversity in our country."
Sounds reasonable, right? Can't let one company own too many news outlets. Otherwise, say, some rich crazy right-wing Aussie will come in and purchase so many networks and stations and papers that the entire country will start to believe the batshit rantings of the barely literate hucksters he employs as mouthpieces, and then...oh, wait.
Getting bogged down again. Let's just say that we can all agree that the huge media conglomerates like Viacom Inc. (which owns CBS, among a billion other things like MTV, etc.) and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (which owns the Fox Network and a zillion other outlets) are dangerously big. As Robert Wilonsky's column ("What's Left of the Dial") last week pointed out, you can add Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations across the country, to this list. They are inherently evil. This is inarguable. Look it up.
But is Belo really big enough to be worried about? Well, it does consist of 26 companies, reach 30 million readers/viewers and brag about scary, Orwellian things such as the fact it's been called "a model of convergence." Perhaps, this company, too, is evil.
But I'm still not convinced that just because a company is evil it should not be allowed to grow. (Must...resist...urge...to make joke...about my own...company...here.) In fact, even though I think its corporate intentions are as evil as Viacom and News Corp. --feed on as many news outlets as possible, thereby lessening the number of media voices--I don't think the ownership cap going to 45 percent will have bad results. In fact, I think that once a station reaches critical mass, as Belo has done, the more stations a company buys, the weaker it makes itself.
Belo Chairman Robert Decherd doesn't agree. He believes his company and others like it must be able to buy more stations to get stronger, to compete with other news entities in this digital age. He says this will allow Belo to do more quality programming.
Decherd, who would not return calls seeking comment, told the Senate committee as much in a poorly punctuated letter a few days before Hutchison's comments. (Note to Bobby D: Adverbs that end in "ly" do not take a hyphen after them. Free copy-editing tip.)
Now, the letter is too long for even this newspaper to excerpt. You can find it at www.belo.com. But the arguments Decherd makes to support the FCC's actions are so twisted, so freaky, so backassward, that there is only one way to describe them: awesome.
"I ask you to permit the recently-concluded [see?!] FCC rulemaking on television ownership to be implemented," Decherd wrote. Why? Because "viewers across America will benefit." How so? Because, well, because Belo will get bigger as a result of the market's "inexorable consolidation." And why should Congress let the consolidation go forth? Because "Congress can always pass legislation in the future...requiring the FCC to address matters that reflect the then-current market environment." But they can't do so now because...because it would be bad.
Oh, let's quit talking about all this and just let us do what Belo wants to do, he says, using his best spoiled-brat private-school logic.
"There has been an overabundance of discussion both in Congress and from the press and public deeply critical of the Commission," he wrote. That's right. The head of a newsgathering corporate octopus is complaining about too much discussion regarding this. Why, not only is Congress and the press discussing it, but the uppity public is weighing in. The nerve!
OK, now that I'm done making fun of him (always makes my job worthwhile), let me tell you that he then goes on to make a point with which I agree. He says, in a very long and drawn-out way, that local stations (and, by extension, publications and radio broadcasts) can only succeed by providing a diversity of opinion to each market they're in. If you don't, people won't watch your TV station or buy your news product.
I agree with this. Then why do I want Belo to get bigger? Because he's wrong if he thinks that getting bigger will make the company better at providing local news. And that means Belo will be weaker and allow other stations and publications to horn in on its racket.
The larger a media company becomes, the more ineffective it will become. Mark Cuban, who understands competing against larger media properties (besides his Internet broadcasting experience, he owns HDnet, the high-definition television network), agrees. "Change is opportunity [for smaller companies]," he says. "The bigger companies get, the harder, not easier, it is for them to compete."
True. Back to radio, Clear Channel is an excellent example of this. Look at what has happened to Kidd Kraddick's top-rated morning show since it was syndicated. The show became less interesting in an effort to placate people in more cities, and he has to work to get listeners back. Other stations Clear Channel took over here have cratered in the ratings as well.
That's not because the people at these companies suddenly turn into morons. Belo is full of smart people who try to put out good news products. But when you acquire more things, more bosses arrive, and decisions are made by more bean counters. It's then easier for more diverse opinions--bloggers, Web sites, the BBC, alternative weeklies, alternatives to alternative weeklies, hell, The Daily Show--to fill that void, and good people at the big evil companies wonder years later where it all went wrong.
Call me naïve, but I have this probably misplaced and decidedly romantic faith that the media marketplace, in this digital age, is a far better self-corrector than government regulation. Although people are slow, they are not forever dumb. Every generation becomes more media-savvy, more able to find in-depth news or biting commentary wherever it is. And they know that usually ain't on the local news.