Guest: The gutting of diversity in TV stations and media voices
Resignation over the status quo with media consolidation will keep our democracy fractured, writes guest columnist Ravi Kapur.
Special to The Times
ANALYZE the media industry for any length of time and you’ll notice platitudes used decades ago are still buoyant today.
The beloved governing body known as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proclaimed for more than 30 years that its mandate is to protect “localism, competition and diversity.”
Leaders of media companies, large and small, broadcast and cable, old guard and new alike, frequently state that more needs to be done to groom women and minorities into leadership positions.
And nonprofits lobby these same folks year after year, at fancy luncheons, during multiday conferences, ostensibly to help level the playing field, while lining their pockets in the process.
The rhetoric espoused by this collective would make any D.C. politico proud.
For the rest of us, outrage and action should come to mind.
It’s not a surprise the topic of media ownership and diversity gets put on the back burner. After all, with government shutdowns, budget shortfalls and foreign wars to ponder, it’s challenging for almost anyone to muster the bandwidth to filter this nuanced issue.
Yet, resignation to the status quo will keep our democracy fractured.
The information you consume each day has a direct impact on the life choices you make. Thanks to deregulation over the last few decades — and no thanks to the players I referenced above — real news content is being generated by fewer and fewer sources.
Media watchdog group Free Press reports that more than 90 percent of full power network-affiliated television stations are owned by corporate conglomerates, with less than 3 percent owned by women and minorities.
Overt and covert consolidations rule the day, virtually eliminating independent group ownership through a variety of measures the FCC and Department of Justice choose to ignore.
Two companies that have exploited the FCC’s lack of enforcement, to their shareholders delight, are Sinclair and Gannett, large station group owners that recently purchased KOMO and KING in Seattle, respectively.
Post-acquisition, Sinclair announced a round of layoffs at KOMO, which was the last major television station in Seattle with local ownership ties. You can expect further cutbacks in newsgathering staff over time as a means, in their words, to “unlock value through scale and synergies.”
When it comes to cable, satellite and wireless companies, ownership and management numbers are even more disturbing, making the broadcast television industry look stellar by comparison.
None of it is acceptable. And it’s getting worse.
In the next couple years, the FCC, as authorized by Congress, will stage a spectrum auction, clearing away up to 20 free over-the-air TV channels in every market to alleviate a perceived spectrum crunch.
It believes that the broadcast television audience is now insignificant nationally and want to sell this bandwidth to wireless companies, who will in turn pass the buck on to you.
Nonprofit advocacy groups, such as the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council, are funded handsomely by some of these same companies. Despite running a media brokerage that actually sold a television station to me, the council is now encouraging aspiring minority entrants to leave old media behind, to stick to building apps or websites, while leaving infrastructure opportunities to incumbents.
Of course, reality is different from spin. The demise of broadcast television, for one, has truly been exaggerated.
GfK’s Media & Entertainment documented recently that nearly 20 percent of Americans, roughly 60 million people, rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasting, up from 14 percent in 2010. The Low Power TV Spectrum Rights Coalition says when you account for second and third television sets in the home, up to 100 million Americans view programming over the air.
And the most diverse segment of American media happens to be in low-power television, where roughly one-third of all licensees are women and minorities.
The pending auction intends to maim low-power television. Introduced to create additional ownership and programming opportunities, LPTV stations can be wiped away with no recourse in the post-auction repacking.
In a country that will be majority-minority in 2043 (meaning people of color will represent the majority of the population) it’s absurd to think the most diverse media vehicle ever created is about to be obliterated so the big broadcasters and wireless monopolies can maintain their fiefdoms.
With the stroke of a pen, low-power TV stations could use the spectrum they have today to provide free digital television, low-cost broadband and voice service, fulfilling every desire outlined in the National Broadband Plan.
But that would create a parallel universe featuring localism, competition and diversity — and what kind of values are those anyway?
The real kicker is that this battle for control over public airwaves is almost over, and it comes as no surprise, the big boys have just about won.
Even people who want to stay in local broadcasting, like me, are being forced to fight with their own shareholders, whose lust for short-term revenue equals that of Wall Street and Congress.
The spectrum speculation charge is being led by Michael Dell of Dell computing fame. His personal capital fund invested in OTA Broadcasting, a group buying up independent minority-focused TV stations in markets such as Seattle, New York, Houston and San Francisco.
Dell’s efforts are all too personal to me, as he and his arbitrage specialists have spent nearly two years chasing after KAXT, a San Francisco television station my family and I proudly built from nothing into the most diverse venue of its kind in America.
Though we have repeatedly said no to their overtures, Dell’s people are aiding and abetting rogue shareholders, using their legal muscle to try and swipe away the station for half of what it’s worth.
Upon acquisition, all indications are that Dell will gladly gut these venues providing free programming to underrepresented groups the moment the auction begins, with the government rooting them on.
Indeed, on some level, it seems as if this is by design — the marginalization and inequity.
Consider the case of Meredith Attwell Baker, the former FCC commissioner who voted in 2011 to approve the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger despite enormous concerns about their combined market power. A few months after the vote, she took a job as one of the company’s chief lobbyists.
This kind of revolving door is a prime reason threats to independent journalism, local ownership and diverse thought are very real.
It’s also why we must all continue to implore our members of Congress, fruitless as it may seem at times, to make competition, localism and diversity more than just an inside joke.
Award-winning journalist Ravi Kapur is the principal of KAXT Channel 1 in San Francisco, WRJK Channel 22 in Chicago and Diya TV, America’s first 24/7 South Asian broadcast television network.