Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski’s plan to allow greater media consolidation in local markets could wipe out many of the remaining TV station owners of color left in the country.
According to the latest data, people of color own just over 3 percent of all full-power TV stations — just 43 of the nation’s 1,348 stations — despite making up close to 40 percent of the U.S. population. African Americans own just five stations. That’s only 0.4 percent of all commercial TV stations. And Latinos own 1.6 percent of all TV stations, despite making up close to 17 percent of the U.S. population.
But the FCC chairman doesn’t plan to deal with this media inequality. Instead, he wants to adopt rules that will make things worse.
This situation didn’t arise by accident. Decades ago, the FCC distributed our nation’s first radio and TV licenses predominantly to white men or big corporations. And the agency has resisted efforts through the years to democratize our nation’s media system or address its inequalities in any meaningful way. This has prevented people of color from being able to tell their own stories; instead, they’ve been marginalized in both news and entertainment programming.
Genachowski, a friend of President Obama from their days in law school, has shown no interest in ownership diversity. Indeed, Genachowski plans to adopt many of the same rules then-Sen. Obama and other Democratic congressional leaders voted to throw out when the Bush-era FCC tried to push them through in 2007.
For example, Genachowski wants to relax the TV-newspaper cross-ownership ban in the top 20 media markets. This would allow one company to own both the leading daily newspaper and a TV station ranked outside the top four in the same market. It’s a change that would allow News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch to buy the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune in cities where he already owns Fox stations.
Nearly half of the 43 stations currently owned by people of color nationwide are located in the top 20 markets, and all of those are rated outside the top four. The rule change would make these stations prime targets for acquisition — meaning that the percentage of TV station owners of color could decline even further.
We’re already moving in the wrong direction. According to Free Press’ latest analysis:
• African Americans own three fewer TV stations than they did in October 2011. Overall there are now six fewer stations owned by people of color than there were in 2011.
• The percentage of African-American-owned TV stations has declined by 74 percent in just six years.
• The number of TV stations owned by people of color has declined by 20 percent since 2006.
• In the last six years, 26 full-power TV stations owned by people of color were sold to “non-minority” owners. All but one was sold under “financial distress.”
This last point is critical. Media consolidation places tremendous financial pressure on broadcast owners of color in local markets because they have a hard time competing with larger corporations for advertising and programming.
The federal court that has twice in the past decade rejected the FCC’s attempts to loosen ownership rules ordered the agency to study the impact of any rule changes on ownership diversity before adopting new rules.
But Genachowski has resisted such an effort, even as the abysmally low levels of broadcast ownership for women and people of color have gotten even worse during his tenure.
The chairman has also ignored calls from more than 60 members of Congress and all of the leading civil rights, public interest and media justice groups to shelve his plan until the FCC conducts such a study.
His refusal to deal with diversity is all the more inexplicable given that just a couple of months ago voters of color played a primary role in President Obama’s re-election — an election that allowed Genachowski to keep his job.
Though perhaps the chairman is more concerned about his next job, as numerous press reports indicate Genachowski plans to leave the FCC soon.
But Genachowski does seem to care about his legacy: In recent interviews, the chairman has tried to convince reporters that his tenure was historic because he guided our nation through a transformative time in our communications industry.
But the FCC’s broken policies and Genachowski’s closed-door approach should really be relics of the past. And if Genachowski is remembered at all, it will be for consistently placing corporate interests ahead of the public interest and for failing to address the growing racial and ethnic disparities that deepen our nation’s media inequality.
No matter how hard Genachowski tries to convince us that he’s a transformative figure, he seems stuck on the wrong side of history.
Free Press is a nonpartisan organization building a nationwide movement for media that serve the public interest. Joseph Torres is the group’s senior external affairs director.
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