Get Ready for an (Almost) Unregulated Media Market

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Hard as it may be to believe in this era of information overload, once upon a time we actually worried that we weren't getting enough information. Fears of media monopoly were once rampant — what if the television station and the newspaper in a city were owned by the same family? And what if that family hated, say, corn on the cob? Everyone in that town would be denied important news concerning that noble vegetable. Recognizing the danger inherent in such a scenario, in 1975 the regulators at the Federal Communications Commission stepped in and made a decree: No one entity may own more than one news outlet in any city, and no company may own more than one broadcast network. Such rules, for example, led to media mogul Rupert Murdoch being obliged to divest himself of the Boston Herald in the early '90s as a condition of his purchase of Fox's Boston affiliate.

And now, according to FCC officials, we may not need those rules any more. The New York Times reports that the agency issued recommendations Tuesday that would ease restrictions on media conglomerates' owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market. The regulations, the FCC argues, were designed to promote media diversity; Tuesday the agency maintained that the growing numbers of cable, satellite and Internet news providers have essentially rendered their statutes obsolete.

That's great news for the Tribune Company, one of the nation's largest media conglomerates, which under current regulations would be forced to sell off holdings in major markets, such as New York and Los Angeles, if it wants to go through with its proposed acquisition of publishing giant Times Mirror. Not that Tuesday's report was a virtual Christmas in May for every media company; Murdoch's Fox, apparently outraged at the FCC's refusal to revise regulations keeping any company from reaching more than 35 percent of the national audience, stormed off to court and filed suit against the agency. Fox reached its limit some time ago, and has been champing at the bit ever since.

As the regulations are debated, new fears, curiously similar to those that spurred the original statutes, have already surfaced. Won't consumers be handed the short end of the stick if media giants are given free rein over the marketplace? Not necessarily, says TIME editor-at-large Daniel Okrent. "A lot of our concerns may be based on antiquated ideas of local ownership — even in small markets, there is very little in terms of truly localized ownership, and there hasn't been for years. Publishing giants like Knight-Ridder and Tribune already own the bulk of nation's papers." In other words, since we're already firmly ensconced in corporate culture, we probably won't notice much of a difference.