William Kennard, until January the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, says that for most members of Congress, the FCC is seen as "this little honey pot" whose decisions they can influence to the benefit of their corporate friends. "The power to grant or deny licenses is the power to make people incredibly wealthy very quickly," says Kennard, who served three years as FCC chairman after three years as the commission's general counsel. He says he came to the job "feeling very strongly that the agency had become the captive of corporate interests and was really not connecting to its core mission" of protecting the public interest in communications. He soon learned firsthand that this might have been an optimistic appraisal.
Kennard's inability to advance even a very modest public service agenda is a good indication of the corruption of communications policy-making today. And indications are that matters will only get worse under the Bush Administration. Bush's choice to replace Kennard, Michael Powell, is an enthusiastic advocate of assisting the largest communications firms to get bigger without any strings attached. When Bush completes his overhaul of the five-person FCC (he's just nominated three new members), expect the commission to resume its traditional role of being, along with the Pentagon, Washington's largest corporate welfare office.
On April 19 the FCC relaxed its restriction against one company owning multiple television networks, meaning that Viacom, which bought CBS last year, can hold on to the UPN network. In the near term, expect to see the FCC remove the prohibition on firms owning TV stations and daily newspapers in the same community. Look also for the FCC to increase the percentage of the nation's markets in which a firm can own TV stations, currently 35 percent, or perhaps to remove all limits, as was done with radio in 1996. Down the road, virtually all the restrictions on cross-ownership among cable companies, TV stations, TV networks and other media and communications firms will be relaxed, if not eliminated. By all accounts, this will lead to a massive wave of mergers and ever more consolidation of media ownership.
In a recent long interview, Kennard voiced concerns about increasing consolidation in the media industry. Nevertheless, he is no radical. He speaks approvingly of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which many regard as written by and for communications corporations, and he is a strong proponent of privatization of communications worldwide. Nor is Kennard especially critical of commercial media per se. The main disagreement between Kennard and Powell–and the main struggle that occupies the FCC–is the core issue of how quickly markets should be deregulated. Kennard believes that the huge communications firms should not be deregulated until they face competition in their own industries; Powell, on the other hand, says that day will never come, so deregulate now and let the chips fall where they may.
Had Kennard's record been limited to disputes of this nature, his reign would have been forgettable. Instead, he highlighted a handful of public interest issues. "These broadcast licenses are not widgets. They impact the way people think, the way our children learn, the way people get information about politics in the public process, and I've always believed that it's vitally important that there be a multiplicity of outlets for expression," Kennard said.
From his first day on the job, Kennard was alarmed by the rapidly escalating cost of political campaigns, driven by the massive sums required to pay for TV political advertising. He hoped that the Gore Commission, whose mandate was to determine the public service obligations of commercial broadcasters in exchange for receiving free digital broadcasting spectrum in the 1996 bill, would propose free airtime for candidates. But, said Kennard, at the end of the day "the broadcast industry was fundamentally unwilling to accept any requirements that they broadcast more public interest programming." Kennard understood the core problem. "The Gore Commission report came after the spectrum had been given away. And so the leverage was lost."