Relaxing Media Consolidation Rules

Ryan Blethen of the Seattle Times editorialized last Friday against relaxing FCC restrictions on media ownership. But these obsolete regulations harm consumer choice and innovation in an age of ubiquitous broadband access.

For the vast majority of Americans, whether in a town of 100,000 or a metro area of 10 million, newspapers remain very affordable and full of local news. Admittedly, local TV news broadcasts are unbearable venues of tabloid journalism, but that’s the case with nearly all news on television (whether on a 24/7 news channel or a big network). Regulating media ownership means fewer news alternatives—in the digital age where readers are flocking to the web, operating a newspaper profitably is not feasible without the efficiencies achievable through economies of scale. Preventing local media outlets from cutting costs through consolidation may force some newspapers and stations to shut down. How does that help create diversity in media?

At least Mr. Blethen acknowledges that “news through broadband is now as important as news off the press” But if he recognizes this, why advocate consolidation rules? If enough consumers desire local news, the free market will meet their needs. Maybe the reason for the lack of substantive community coverage is that most people just don’t care about local affairs. Though this may be undesirable in a democracy, it is not the job of government to dictate consumer preferences. Ordinary citizens already discuss local elections and post newsworthy information online.

Anybody can start a newspaper, pamphlet, or website. Where entry costs for print and broadcast media are prohibitive, there’s always the internet; hosting a website has become inexpensive and straightforward. The internet fills in the gaps in traditional media coverage; niche topics like technology news, for example, are discussed on a myriad of sites ranging from Slashdot to ArsTechnica.

Another major reason for the lack of media diversity is obsolete, inefficient central planning of the wireless spectrum by the FCC. Starting a radio or television station should be as easy as buying a transmitter and renting a slice of a frequency band, but due to rigid regulations, barriers to entry are formidable in the radio and television markets. Entrenched, government-granted monopolies might become detached from local markets, but only because the threat of competition is artificially diminished. Lifting regulations and reducing the scope of the federal bureaucracy will enhance media diversity and expand consumer choice.