The Federal Communications Commission might be the most powerful unknown agency of the federal government – a backwater that happens to influence a huge slice of our economy.
Of late, our own Seattle Times has been putting a deserved spotlight on the FCC through a series called "The Democracy Papers" and a blog by Ryan Blethen, son of Publisher Frank Blethen, that tells us the American press is being decimated by consolidation. Civic debate, at least in and on the mainstream media outlets, is controlled by fewer and fewer players.
I wish I could be optimistic on this topic. Years ago, desktop publishing was going to offset the power of "big media." Now blogging is the hope. MySpace is cool, but more so before Rupert Murdoch bought it. Facebook just got valued at $15 billion – it, too, is now big business.
It's all a bit weird when we're rooting for Google in a contest over spectrum.
Yes, spectrum. That's just one area where the FCC plays God, setting the rules, picking winners and losers, tilting the field where billions of dollars are at stake. The regulation of our lines of communication is dressed up as advancing the economy and public access to information and ideas, but it's all a matter of how you define "economy." If it's about protecting prior investment by incumbent players (the broadcast industry or the cable industry), then you are less likely to give a free pass to newcomers.
"Spectrum" refers to the radio spectrum, the public airwaves, the invisible medium for cellular telephone calls, broadcast television and radio, and other data. In the 1940s and 1950s, when a TV station needed a big fat chunk of spectrum to transit a signal, the FCC allocated radio frequencies and made sure one signal didn't interfere with another. Presto! You're channel 4. And those who got the spectrum got very, very rich, without paying a penny for the broadcast license. (A King Broadcasting executive once called TV and radio, with only some exaggeration, the most profitable industry in history. An FCC license has long been jokingly referred to in the business as a license to print money.) A generation later, the process was repeated with licenses to start cellular telephone services.
Today, we're going digital. Different portions of the spectrum have different engineering issues, but today you can transmit a phone call, a 30 Rock episode, stock prices, or today's issue of The Seattle Times through the air. And thanks to processors built into TV, laptops, and cell phones, any of those gadgets can gather and manage that content.
The FCC sits at the center of this transformation, writing the rules: You no longer have to provide time for public affairs programs. You may or may not, depending on the situation, own a newspaper and a television station in the same market. You may take your cellular telephone number to a different service provider. You may or may not charge additional Internet access fees. You may not have a "wardrobe malfunction" during a Super Bowl broadcast. You may or may not own more than X stations in the same city. And of course there are exceptions, worth huge money. Just ask the Tribune Company, which got a waiver to own the Los Angeles Times and a TV station in the same market. That waiver is now being challenged. Changing the rules would allow a company to own at the same time one of Seattle's newspapers and one or more TV channels; that would dramatically alter the competitive balance between our two newspapers. Martin seems to want to put that last rule on the fast track for change.
Almost as if to disguise the big-money drama, the FCC conducts itself in the most boring way possible, giving notices of desires to do something, studies of a desire to do something, first hearings on whether, second hearings on – still awake? And yet the agency is followed intensely by a group of Washington, D.C., lawyers who specialize in the arcana. Martin himself represents this tribe as an alumnus of the law firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding. Martin, 40, may look really young but he has a history with the agency, once serving as an advisor to a commissioner. A similar path was followed by Martin's predecessor as chairman, Michael Powell, the son of Colin Powell.
The commission is not a place for bomb-throwers. It's a place for five insiders who get invited to speak to industry conferences. The public can't name a single member.
Hearings do attract regular citizens who complain about the price of cable TV, the blanderization of broadcast radio, the obstacles faced by low-power radio, the menace of Rupert Murdoch or some other corporate leader gobbling up media outlets.
The topic is so big it makes your head hurt, which is why the game is controlled by big companies and their very talented lawyers.
Once in a while, the FCC pushes forward a change that clearly serves the public, like "number portability," allowing you to move your cell phone number to a different provider. But too often the battles just seem like big companies battling even bigger companies, or one huge powerful interest butting another.
So on behalf of we, the people, where do we start? More independent voices? Yes. Fewer barriers for others to start broadcasting? Preserve Democracy? You bet. Cheaper cable? Yes. And fewer reality-TV shows? Start with that.