BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week the axe that consumer advocates kept warning us about finally fell on a couple of FCC regulations written decades ago. A federal court in Washington ruled that it's okay for cable systems and TV stations in the same market to buy each other up. It also said that the FCC must reconsider the rule that says no one company's TV stations can reach more than 35 percent of the nation's households. It's anticipated that the next regulation to go up on the chopping block will be the one that bars broadcasters and newspapers in the same market from owning each other. Essentially the court and its broadcast plaintiffs say that these measures to protect diversity are outdated in such a crowded media market. Chris Murray, a lawyer for the Consumer's Union, is worried.
CHRIS MURRAY: In any community, most people get their information from two sources -- either the broadcaster or the cable company. Imagine if these news services start buying each other up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you absolutely convinced that stories and ideas will be suppressed if the owners become bigger?
CHRIS MURRAY: It's not so much just if the owners become bigger. The question is: if the owners have sort of an increasing web of relationships between each other and they have joint ventures, they have joint programming agreements and aggressively covering each other becomes sort of economically dangerous for them. I think that's where the viewpoints get suppressed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now the court strictly speaking didn't overturn the cap that says no one broadcaster can reach more than 35 percent of the country with the stations it owns. It's sent that back to the FCC, and the FCC is expected to come up with, say, a 50 percent cap or something like that. Does it really matter?
CHRIS MURRAY: Well you're exactly correct that it's been sent back to the FCC, but the political reality is that the Federal Communications Commission under Michael Powell is going to either get rid of this entirely or raise the cap to such a level that the local affiliates really go away, and the marketplace result to that is that local news goes away, because it's incredibly expensive to produce, it's much more efficient to just put in Buffy, The Vampire Slayer all over the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How would you counter the objections of the industry that have said listen -- we have so much more diversity now than we did when these rules were promulgated -- when there were only three networks -- when you have a hundred channel satellite, cable, the Internet and so forth adding to the general cacophony.
CHRIS MURRAY: We have to talk about the difference between variety and diversity of ownership. It's one thing to have 70 channels, but if those 70 channels or a hundred channels are all owned by the same person or by 3 or 4 companies, to me that's not real diversity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you see this as just falling dominoes --all of these protections that were put in place so many years ago -- dropping one by one?
CHRIS MURRAY: Well we are absolutely in free fall mode with regard to media ownership restrictions, whether it's the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule going away, this particular broadcast-cable cross ownership rule going away, the 35 percent broadcast cap -- all of these sort of seemingly byzantine, slightly boring regulations -- as they go away all at once -- it's amazing the consolidation effects that we're going to see. For instance in the Internet, we always hear, you know, well if you can't get diverse news and information over broadcast television, just go to the Internet. Thirty percent of all user minutes last year were spent in one company's web site, and that was AOL/Time Warner. We always think well the Internet can't really get consolidated, but it's happening there as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Murray, thank you very much.
CHRIS MURRAY: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Murray is a lawyer for the Consumer's Union. Steve Effros joins us now. For 23 years he was the head of the Cable Telecommunications Association, one of the major national trade associations for the cable television industry. Steve, welcome to the show.
STEVE EFFROS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you are one of the people who actually wrote these laws back in your FCC days in the '70s.
STEVE EFFROS: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why were they apropos then but not now?
STEVE EFFROS: The concern back then was when there was a nascent industry such as cable that a broadcaster could buy the cable franchise and then not build it. That no longer is an issue because the cable systems are built. There was also a concern that a cable company could buy a broadcast station and then only carry that broadcast station. But there are now rules that prohibit that -- so they have to carry all the broadcast stations anyway. The two principal concerns, legally, were eliminated by the passage of time and the passage of other rules and regulations. The third one, with regard to diversity, has obviously changed. Back 30 years ago we had, you know, 3 major networks and several independents, maybe, in major markets and a public broadcast station. Now we have hundreds of stations. And so those were the primary concerns. They're no longer concerns. The, the court said this is anachronistic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well then tell me why do you think that consumer advocates are so passionate about this?
STEVE EFFROS: I'm not sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think because they see it as the first or perhaps the fourth or fifth of a series of a dozen dominoes that are dropping all the protections of the public interest in the broadcast realm that were established by the FCC when you were there writing them.
STEVE EFFROS: The public interest in the broadcast realm --but-- what that does is make the assumption that big is bad!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you don't think big is bad!
STEVE EFFROS: I don't think there's an-- there's very much support for the proposition! No! I think that we got more news when CNN had enough money to do news. They couldn't do it when they were small! So, no, big is not necessarily bad! I, I just don't buy that premise! If CNN were the only one, then I buy the premise, but we have anti-trust laws for that. We-- There, there are a whole other set of laws in this country that are there to deal with the question of monopoly, and those haven't been touched. So I'm still not sure why there is this-- this cons-- you know this feeling that the sky is falling. I don't think the sky is falling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you see some other age-old regulations going under the axe like the 35 percent cap or the upcoming probable repeal of the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rules, do any of these give you cause for concern?
STEVE EFFROS: I think there's cause for being very pleased that the system has worked, because what the courts are saying is it seems to us that we have more diversity today than we've ever had; we have more different points of view being heard than we ever had; and therefore the rules that you are talking about which were established in an era when we didn't have that diversity are no longer needed. I think that's a good thing!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay! Steve, thank you very much.
STEVE EFFROS: All righty. Any time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve Effros is president of Effros Communications, a strategic communications and consulting firm. [MUSIC]