The Federal Communications Commission today voted to tighten regulation of cable companies, and ease regulation of newspaper and broadcast companies. The votes are a triumph for FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who last month suffered a temporary defeat when he brought the cable proposal up for a vote.
Today's victory on the cable issue may also be temporary given strong and continuing industry resistance. But for now Martin appears to have reconciled the complex array of competing interests at stake in both of these votes.
The importance of competition
Competition is at the heart of all the arguments voted on today. Newspaper companies argued increasing competition for advertising revenue makes obsolete a rule against owning a broadcast station in the same market. Huge numbers of readers disagreed, arguing the restriction preserved competition covering local news, increasing the range of information and ideas available in those markets.
The FCC voted to ease the cross-ownership restriction in the 20 largest markets.
Cable companies argued they need to get larger because subscribers have more and more alternatives in the new media world. Consumer groups and Chairman Martin disagreed, arguing cable rates keep rising and subscribers don't have access to the full range of possible program choices.
The FCC voted to keep individual cable companies from reaching more than 30 percent of the national market. This is expected to have an immediate effect on Comcast.
Reasons to be skeptical on cross-ownership
My immediate reaction is mostly to the cross-ownership vote. The competitive problem for newspapers is not local radio or television stations, but new forms of media such as the Internet and cell phones. Putting resources into broadcast stations is an odd response, especially when you consider some newspaper companies such as The New York Times and Belo recently divested their television stations.
The expense of acquiring radio and television stations will also force newspaper companies to cut operating costs, so be skeptical of claims that these companies will increase news coverage in these markets.
More broadly, the competition arguments rely on differing definitions and models. Newspaper companies, and both sides in the cable argument, are using economic models concerned with efficient use of limited resources, and providing goods and services at the lowest possible cost.
Supporters of cross-ownership restrictions are using a First Amendment model concerned with expanding the range of ideas, and the emergence of a workable consensus on matters of public concern.