Here's an issue that used to be a real hot button but which no longer seems to excite much public interest: media ownership. For decades, consumer activists complained that there was too little diversity in the ownership of television, newspapers and radio.
You don't hear much of that anymore, what with the Internet and cable providing all the shouting matches anyone can tolerate.
Perhaps mirroring that thinking, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to eliminate the decades-old rules limiting cross-ownership of TV and radio stations in local media markets. The FCC also says it will "revisit" its rules regulating common ownership of same-market broadcast and newspaper properties. But the question remains whether regulatory changes will lead to marketplace changes.
Whether any of this will make much difference is an open question. There's not much public outcry about "the media" anymore, except when John King asks Newt Gingrich the question that's on everyone's lips. We tried to conduct a computerized sentiment analysis of what consumers think about the issue but our search of Twitter, Facebook and so forth turned up exactly zero comments about the phrase "media crossownership" over the last 12 months.
Compare that to 29 million comments about Google over the last year and we get an idea of where the public's head is at, so to speak.
Business interests aren't exactly falling all over each other to snatch up local properties either. The market value of local media properties has been badly eroded by the rise of Internet media. It's not that Web content is necessarily all that great, but sites likes Craigslist have decimated the local advertising that was once the mainstay of local papers and broadcasters.
Giant sucking sound
With Google and its competitors sucking billions of dollars out of local and national advertising budgets, it makes it a little harder to think that anyone other than Rupert Murdoch will be eagerly snapping up multiple properties in a market. But stranger things have happened, and at least a few groups are taking up the no-crossownership cudgel.
Most prominent is the American Civil Liberties Union, which opined in a blog this week that the FCC's proposal "would weaken important existing protections that ensure our free access to media of all varieties."
"Recognizing the importance of a diversity of opinions in media coverage, the FCC established media ownership rules in the 1970s to promote competition and diversity in our media by protecting local markets from being controlled by a small handful of media companies," said Sandra Fulton of the ACLU's Washington office.
"The ACLU believes that in order to best serve the people and our democracy, the FCC should hold on to rules that encourage diversity and media ownership by women and minority communities," Fulton said.
"Diversity of perspectives"
Sharing that view is the Writer's Guild of America, East, which said consolidation "undermines the quality of broadcast news and reduces the diversity of perspectives on TV."
"The Writers Guild of America, East takes issue with the assertion made by various media companies that consolidation of ownership frees up resources to improve news coverage, the union said in a statement. "Simply permitting television, radio, internet, or newspaper outlets to combine will inevitably result in less substance, in the absence of clearly defined requirements that specific levels of resources be devoted to journalism."
What do broadcasters and publishers think about this? There hasn't been much reaction so far, partly because the advantages of cross-ownership -- owning both a TV station and newspaper in the same community, for example -- aren't what they used to be, with cable and Internet properties flooding the pipeline.
Also, as The Daily Deal, an industry publication, noted recently, "the TV, radio and newspaper industries have become increasingly distinct, making the FCC's proposal far less deregulatory in practice than it may appear in print."
Of greater concern the broadcasters is a little-noticed suggestion that the FCC insert itself more deeply into the relationship between stations and networks.
"The potential for the FCC to further regulate who can become an affiliate of a top-rated network would interpose the FCC in what has been historically a free-standing commercial and content-based decision between networks and station operators," the paper said.