To hear the doomsayers tell it, average Americans will wake up on June 3 to a brave new world of media monopolies, where mass-produced entertainment and reality shows squeeze out a free press, eventually undermining democracy itself — all in the name of increased efficiency and the corporate bottom line.
But when it comes right down to it, attorneys may reap the biggest short-term windfall as the Federal Communications Commission prepares to make sweeping changes to wide-ranging rules that govern how much one company can control what people see, hear and read.
The massive rewrite is almost a sure thing. There are three Republicans and two Democratic commissioners at the agency who will likely vote along party lines. That means the majority supporting GOP Commissioner Michael Powell’s controversial plan to loosen the reins on mergers and make it easier for the media congloms to buy more TV and radio stations.
But first, lawyers have to read the fine print and interpret it, according to Dick Riley, a partner at communications firm Riley, Rein and Fielding.
It will take weeks, he says, just to go through the usual requests for reconsideration of various aspects of the new rules, then another few weeks to have the final version printed in the Federal Register.
Watchdog groups and trade organizations representing station affiliate interests are just as eager to stifle the corporate zeal with a mountain of lawsuits and legal paperwork, which could take months and months to dig through.
In the flurry of activity leading up to the vote, consumer groups and media critics describe the consequences of Powell’s plans in apocalyptic terms.
Everyone from John Wells, Barry Diller, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Neil Diamond, Norman Lear and Ted Turner have assailed them.
“We should view this as not the last battle of a war that’s lost, but really the first battle. This is just the beginning and I don’t think it’s going away,” predicted Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois professor and president of Free Press, an organization devoted to media diversity.
Democratic FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps tried to rally the troops against the plan by holding public hearings around the country.
The response to the Powell plan, according to Adelstein, was roundly critical.
“People think the further media consolidation will only accelerate a trend they already find alarming — sensationalism, crassness, violence, homogenization and a lack of serious news coverage across the public airwaves,” he says.
However, Riley and his like-minded colleagues scoff at predictions that a tsunami of media mergers will come crashing down the morning of June 3.
“There’s so many choices available in the media today, like the Internet and cable,” he argued. “We’ve got to realize that some consolidation, some growth is needed. The world has changed.”