A storm of protest erupted. It was followed by the now-familiar election-year Washington kabuki dance, featuring fulminating politicians, contrite media conglomerate moguls and flustered NFL officials -- even FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has consistently avoided criticizing Big Media companies, declared himself outraged by the events. If anyone had a right to gloat, it would be [Michael Copps], a former history professor who rarely watches TV, listens to NPR and has all the charisma of, well, Dick Cheney. The Super Bowl fiasco, followed by headline grabbing congressional hearings and hefty FCC fines against several radio raunchmeisters has offered a timely spotlight for Copps' pet issues -- media consolidation and indecency on the airwaves.
Copps' linkage of indecency with media consolidation isn't just based on a wild hunch. According to internal FCC data, since the government's Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the doors for a vast expansion of local radio and TV ownership by media conglomerates, the growth of media consolidation has been closely followed by a steep rise in indecency complaints. In 2000, the first year of available statistics, there were only 111 indecency complaints reported to the FCC. In 2003, there were 240,342 complaints. Complaints this year have already passed the 500,000 mark. As anyone who has ever tried to get a cable company on the phone will attest, media conglomerates largely operate at a safe distance from the communities they service, while locally owned broadcasters have to defend their programming choices at the local grocery store. And under relentless pressure from Wall Street stock analysts, big media companies regularly succumb to all sorts of odious short-term ratings gimmickry to boost quarterly earnings reports. It's hardly a surprise that 80% of recent FCC indecency fines have gone to DJs working for two conglomerates, Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting.
The decency debate could serve as a consciousness-raising alert. When the FCC was readying its rollback of limitations on media ownership last year, Powell held one public hearing, and that was only after Copps raised a ruckus. Copps held a series of his own hearings, paid for out of his personal budget. On the other hand, FCC officials had 71 private meetings with top broadcasters in the months before the rollback, including personal lobbying sessions with News Corp.'s [Rupert Murdoch] and Viacom's Mel Karmazin.