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New FCC Ruling is Worth Getting "Mad as Hell" About
December 19, 2007  | By David Bianculli
The Federal Communications Commission's ruling yesterday, allowing media companies in the Top 20 TV markets to own both a newspaper and a television station in the same market, is a big disappointment, but isn't that much of a surprise. Not when the FCC's reversal of financial syndication rules long ago ripped the heart out of most independent production companies - and not when this entire global trend of fewer corporations owning more media outlets was predicted, brilliantly, more than 30 years ago.

Not in a documentary. Not in a think-tank study. It was predicted, in 1976, by Paddy Chayefsky in his visionary movie Network.

It's astounding, in retrospect, how much Chayefsky got right.

Network news becoming profit centers, blurring the lines between news and entertainment in search of higher ratings? An upstart fourth network, coming out nowhere to take the prime-time ratings lead by relying on live reality programming? And in the executive suites, broadcast networks being overtaken by international big-business corporate types, less interested in quality and legacy than in market share and quarterly earnings?

Before NBC sought out predators on Dateline NBC, before there was a Fox that lured viewers with Joe Millionaire and American Idol, and before the spider web of media ownership became more sticky every year, Network had it all.

Howard Beale

It had Peter Finch as Howard Beale, that mad prophet of the UBS airwaves, a newsman gone madman who told his viewers, on live TV, to get out of their chairs, open their windows and scream, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this any more!"

And, most relevant to what happened today at the FCC, and what has happened the past two months with the Writers Guild of America taking on media moguls, is another unforgettable scene from Network. It's the one where Ned Beatty, as UBS chairman Arthur Jensen, lectures Beale thunderously in the network board room, illuminated like an angry god.

Ned Beatty

"There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no Third Worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems...

"It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet."

The speech is long and potent, but the gist is in this key paragraph:

"You get up on your little 21-inch screen and howl about America and democracy," Jensen tells Beale. "There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. "The world is a college of corporations..."

Today, that world got a little smaller, the rich got a chance to get a lot richer - and the voices of diversity, already strangling in this era of corporate cross-ownership, are about to get even more few, and more faint.

Think this is paranoia? Ask Ed Bark, former TV critic of The Dallas Morning News. The owners of his paper, granted a rare exception years ago, also owned a Dallas TV affiliate - and in 2000, instituted a ban against the newspaper critiquing or covering local stations in the country's sixth-largest market. Bark finally got mad as hell, and wasn't gonna take it any more, and left the paper in 2006 to start his own TV website. Read his introductory column at http://www.unclebarky.com/why.html.

If the FCC didn't know what happened in Dallas because of cross-ownership, that's bad. If the FCC did know, but didn't care, that's even worse.




Tom said:

I would share your dismay if newspapers weren't such wimpy shadows of what they once were and still could be. The FCC can't break something that started destructing itself years ago.
Local papers too often skip the enterprising story because they don't want to offend a current or potential advertiser (and they've cut their news staff to such a minimal level that they probably couldn't assign someone to such a story if they wanted to).
Whether the TV station is owned by a newspaper group, or the opposite, the resulting product will be largely one that's easily ignored and not taken seriously by people who remember when news executives were people who cared more about the product than the parent company's closing price that day.

Comment posted on December 19, 2007 10:09 AM

Dan L. said:

The destruction of the FCC since 1980 is a microcosm of neo-con theory applied. Putting people in charge of institutions who don't believe in what they're regulating is a brilliant way to do generations-long damage.

Remember the first 50 years or so of broadcasting, when even college stations only serving dozens of people had to document every minute of their broadcast day? I wonder what happened to all those logs?

Seems even quaint concepts like "public interest" have become privatized....

Comment posted on December 27, 2007 2:07 AM

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