America is the land of opportunity, and the strong and vibrant participation of women and minorities in the broadcast and digital media industries can have a powerful effect on public discourse and democracy. Through the years, the Federal Communications Commission - sometimes at the direction of Congress, other times on its own initiative - has tried to promote women and minority ownership of broadcast stations in order to (their words) “foster diversity in broadcasting.”
To this end, last week the FCC proposed to collect data on the topic and reconvened its Advisory Committee for Diversity in the Digital Age. There is certainly room for new thinking on this topic, particularly given the declining state of the broadcast industry generally. But rather than explore quotas or set-asides, we should first explore opportunity-driven and market-based methods of achieving this goal.
Recent reports indicate it is increasingly difficult for anyone to be in the broadcast industry. With competition from alternative media such as the Internet, satellite and cable television, it is harder and harder for broadcasters (and newspapers) to attract the eyes and ears that advertisers will pay to reach.
Indeed, a simple Internet search reveals there is a veritable “fire sale” of broadcast properties available for shrewd investors. As such, the real question is not necessarily ensuring diversity in race or gender, but whether the broadcaster has the business skill and access to capital to generate enough revenue to preserve the medium.
Given the radical shift of the economics of the business, perhaps it is time to reassess some of the questions that have previously dominated the debate.
First, does “diversity in ownership” automatically translate into “diversity of viewpoints”? Answer: not necessarily.
The conventional wisdom in favor of “diversity of ownership” is that women and minorities will purchase radio stations and then program these stations according to their interests and tastes. While there is certainly anecdotal evidence to support this proposition (for example, the successful Radio One Network), broadcasting remains a business in which economics, not the broadcaster’s personal tastes, will ultimately dictate most business decisions. Radio is funded by selling advertisements to listeners.
The rational broadcaster will evaluate the formats currently serving the market, identify the unserved niche, and target programming that will bring in the most ears and eyeballs.
Second, how does this renewed focus on “diversity” affect the other two legs of the media policy priority stool - competition in the advertising market and “localism” in media? Answer: We may have to make some tough policy trade-offs.
Radio is a very expensive business and advertising dollars are shrinking rapidly. To make the economics of promoting “diversity” work, it may be better to relax current media ownership rules and newspaper cross-ownership restrictions so minority broadcasters can assemble advertising packages that target multiple formats, demographics and even geographic areas to stay profitable. In fact, such consolidation may promote diversity by allowing local, minority-owned businesses to band together to face alternative media competition.
Finally, does a renewed focus on promoting diversity in ownership automatically mean a return of the dreaded Fairness Doctrine? Answer: surprisingly, no.
For those unfamiliar with the issue, the Fairness Doctrine was an FCC policy, eliminated by President Reagan in 1987, that required “that discussion of public issues be presented on broadcast stations, and that each side of those issues must be given fair coverage.” While there have been some rumblings about reviving the Fairness Doctrine of late, there is fortunately a growing intellectual leadership on both sides of the political aisle to leave it be.
For example, Acting Chairman Michael J. Copps recently said: “Those who claim that promoting diversity … [is] the equivalent of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine understand neither the Fairness Doctrine nor, more importantly, the lack of opportunity minorities and women have when it comes to owning and operating the enterprises that allow us to communicate with one another.”
Similarly, writing in concurrence with a recent Supreme Court on FCC processes, Justice Clarence Thomas observed that because “traditional broadcast television and radio are no longer the “uniquely pervasive” media forms they once were … [t]he extant facts that drove this court to subject broadcasters to unique disfavor under the First Amendment [with the Fairness Doctrine] simply do not exist today.”
Indeed, an opportunity-based approach that calls for a re-examination of archaic media ownership rules and that focuses on preserving opportunities for local media outlets is the antithesis of the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine is the government telling broadcasters to air all viewpoints; an opportunity policy is the government giving broadcasters the tools to air specific, highly tailored viewpoints.
The late Jack Kemp was famous for saying that “There are no limits to our future if we don’t put limits on our people.” Accordingly, if we can take the politics out of media policy and focus on marketplace realities, there will be opportunities for anyone with drive and entrepreneurship, regardless of their race, creed, color or religion, to enter the broadcast industry and help participate in the marketplace of ideas.
Lawrence J. Spiwak is president of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies (www.phoenix-center.org), a nonprofit policy institute in Washington. The views expressed are Mr. Spiwak’s own.