The Federal Communications Commission has continued its gradual loosening of television and radio restrictions with new rules on company ownership. In part, the new FCC regulations raise the percentage of national households—from 35 percent to 45 percent—that a broadcast company is allowed to reach. This gives large media conglomerates power to buy even more television and radio stations owned by smaller networks and individuals.
The aim of the changes, the FCC said, is to promote diversity and competitiveness in a business changed by new technologies and media options. Critics of the deregulation, however, say it will do just the opposite; reducing diversity in both ownership and local programming.
In a June interview with UPI, media critic L. Brent Bozell noted that when the FCC last loosened ownership rules, ABC, CBS, and NBC controlled 17 percent of broadcast programming. Now, they control 48 percent. In fact, Bozell said, six companies control nearly two-thirds of all U.S. programming.
Concerns about the loss of local programming and lack of ownership diversity led members of Congress last month to introduce bills to overturn the deregulation. Frank Wright, president and chief operating officer for the National Religious Broadcasters, which represents 1,700 networks, stations, and programs, told CT that many in Washington expect the Senate will vote to set back the latest FCC changes, but the House will not.
Like many supporters of FCC deregulation, Wright says the new rules offer religious broadcasters greater financial and growth options. But Christian broadcasters are unlikely to be as affected as secular companies, he says. This is because Christian stations tend to be small, non-profit operations that are more likely to be swallowed by larger media corporations. This trend accelerated quickly with the latest round of deregulation: Of the few independent radio stations around ten years ago, half have now been bought out.
Changing ownership rules have impaired the diversity of broadcast options, says Tona Hangen, a lecturer in the History and Literature Program at Harvard University and author of Redeeming the Dial, a history of religious radio. "I'm of the school of thought that the new deregulation will cause on radio what happened in TV news—the increasing restriction of available perspectives," she told CT. "There have always been pockets, especially on AM radio, of religious programming where minority viewpoints and small-scale preachers without a lot of financial backing could make themselves heard. This may be what the new moves endanger. It may end opportunities for Christian radio ministry start-ups."
Stephen Winzenburg, associate professor of communication at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, agrees that small Christian stations could be threatened. "For the majority of companies, this is probably frightening," he told CT. "It really favors the big guys. It doesn't of course mean they have to sell out, but it's hard for the small broadcaster to survive with dollars dangled in front of them."
However, both Winzenburg and the NRB's Wright told CT that the affect on Christian broadcasting could be minimal, simply because there aren't many independent Christian stations to be bought.
The last round of deregulation led so many larger corporations to buy up small, independent radio stations that few remain to be purchased, Winzenburg said.
There are few local Christian television stations, he adds, but those that remain are unlikely to attract large secular corporations. "Christian broadcasters are not in it for the money, so they may buy stations that a secular broadcaster would not," he said. "Many Christian stations are on UHF, and big conglomerates don't want channel 46."
Winzenburg expects Trinity Broadcasting and Pax-TV (which is already partly owned by NBC) will be the Christian companies most affected by the new rulings because they will have room to add to their growing networks. But with the growing centralized nature of broadcasting, small Christian stations can grasp a unique opportunity, too, he says: "Christian broadcasters could take advantage of this by offering greater service to the local marketplace that is more and more abandoned by the secular."
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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