When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act Of 1996, it didn’t seem like a big deal. An act that was meant to save consumers money on cable bills and phone service, the Telecom Act passed through Congress with flying colors, earning yea votes from 91 of the 100 senators, and about 95 percent of the House Of Representatives. And yet, 20 years later, the Telecom Act has led to all sorts of media bullshit, like the conglomeration of radio by Clear Channel—now also known as iHeartMedia, much to the dismay of all sentient adults—the continuing rise of cable, cellphone, and internet pricing, and the dissolution of local newsrooms everywhere. What went wrong, and why should you—a person who just wants to sign on to Netflix, turn into a lump, and watch Master Of None—care?
There are a lot of reasons why. There are entire books that explain why this quickly passed, little-talked-about law matters, but Common Cause, a liberal-leaning non-profit advocacy group, broke it down in 2005 when it published a paper on the act’s long tail. The group said that the act:
• Lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own [and] made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations…
• Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach… These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration.
• Deregulated cable rates. Between 1996 and 2003, those rates have skyrocketed, increasing by nearly 50 percent…
• Permitted the Federal Communications Commission to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules… Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source of competition.
The act also gave broadcasters valuable digital TV licenses for free, as well as extended the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years.
When the Telecom Act lifted the limit of radio stations one company could own, it not only created a climate for mega conglomerates like Clear Channel, it also contributed to the insane slide the music industry has experienced over the past 20 years. If a station in Detroit, for instance, is owned by Clear Channel, the company sets the playlist, not the average DJ. That creates less diversity over the radio waves, especially if the same corporation owns a large group of stations in one town. In essence, if a Chicago pop station is playing a lot of Britney Spears, it’s because CBS—the corporation that owns a number of radio stations in Chicago—likes Britney Spears, not because one dude in the music department is into “Toxic.” And if Chicago’s pop station is playing Britney Spears, then she’s going to get airplay at the adult contemporary station in the same network in a few months or years, and she’s going to be getting similarly heavy airplay all across the country at all CBS’ stations.
But what’s wrong with Britney Spears? Nothing, really, unless you’re some upstart pop diva who just wants a single broadcaster to give her a chance. Or you’re an alt-rock radio station that wants to stay afloat by selling ads but can’t really compete with Clear Channel’s army of salespeople who have access to all manner of radio stations at once, making their deals the best in town. Or you’re a listener in Toledo who doesn’t realize that their beloved drive-time DJ isn’t actually in Toledo at all, but instead recorded his or her song segues and chatter from some booth in Dallas, where they’re being paid a couple thousand dollars more to put in some extra hours by pretending to care about—or even know about—a city they’ve maybe never been to. And yes, that happens. A lot. As communications scholar Robert McChesney told The A.V. Club:
If you went to a Clear Channel office in Peoria, Illinois or Toledo, Ohio, where [the company owns] eight stations or six stations, you could go into one floor of an office building where they were located and there would be a large closet for each of their stations, and they’d all be automated out of Texas. There would be one ad sales staff to sell all these stations locally, but a lot of the programming would be done out of a central headquarters.
He also says that radio is “by far the most democratic medium because it’s very inexpensive to produce a good quality radio signal,” noting that “every community could [perceivably] have 30, 40, 50 local stations run by people from the community both for profit and not.”
In 2011, Clear Channel laid off hundreds of DJs in an attempt to revamp about 600 regional stations. One DJ, Micki Goldberg, who was laid off at that time, told The New York Times that she’d been simultaneously working DJ shifts at four different Ohio stations, the listeners of which probably had no idea. Other stations lost their local morning shows entirely at that time, as management chose to move from hyper-local content to cheaper, more sensational content like Rover’s Morning Glory, a shock-jock hosted show that boasts “hook-up hotties” and airs simultaneously on eight different stations around the eastern half of the country.
That kind of radio consolidation might not make you mad if, like seemingly most of the world’s media-savvy twenty- and thirtysomethings, you don’t spend your mornings listening to drive-time radio.
That kind of consolidation has trickled down into newsrooms as well, meaning that local news coverage on most commercially owned radio stations is almost non-existent, just like local flair. As McChesney puts it, “Fifty years ago when you drove from New York to California, every station would have a whole different sound to it because there would be different people talking. You’d learn a lot about the local community through the radio, and that’s all gone now. They destroyed radio. It was assassinated by the FCC and corporate lobbyists.” And while you used to be able to just turn on the local news for that information, that’s not really the case anymore, thanks in part to—you guessed it—the Telecommunications Act Of 1996.
When the act deregulated the number of radio stations a single corporation could own, it also deregulated the number of television stations a corporation or individual could own. Local stations that used to belong to a single parent corporation now belong to a larger conglomerate, with Common Cause noting that, “Together, just five companies—Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, News Corp, NBC and AOL, owner of Time Warner—now control 75 percent of all primetime viewing.” The same goes for local news as well, with corporations like the Sinclair Broadcast Group—a company that owned just 12 stations in 1996—accumulating more than 50 stations since, most of which have seen their newsrooms gutted in favor of pre-packaged, centrally produced news, almost none of which is local. McChesney says the move happened for a fairly simple reason, saying that once corporations realized they could make money off the news—rather than just viewing it as a public service—they started “making that a joke, too.” As he notes, the move made it so “they could still put on what’s called a news show, but it’s mostly just fluff and trivia and 23-year-olds spewing out talking points that they read on a teleprompter, having no idea what the fuck they’re talking about, fortunately for them.”
That kind of mindless newsreading has real consequences, too. As Common Cause notes in its position paper, “In 2002, more than half of TV stations in the nation’s top 50 markets completely ignored state and congressional elections in their highest rated local news programs in the weeks leading up to those elections, with large station owners offering the least election coverage of all.” McChesney takes it further, saying, “What little coverage there is, is mostly gossip, spin, and speculation, or basically what’s spoon-fed to them by party elites and insiders and big shots accepting all their biases as the appropriate way to view the world. It’s impossible to exaggerate just how nutritionless this so-called journalism is.” In other words, viewers of most stations get lots of Donald Trump news, but almost nothing about city council elections or even state representatives.
Additionally, Common Cause’s Todd O’Boyle told The A.V. Club that “election season is a gravy train for broadcasters,” as well, meaning that most local stations “book record revenues for political ads.” According to O’Boyle, “in many communities, voters are seeing more election content in the form of advertising than they are in the form of news reporting,” saying there have even been instances of local newscasts cutting their broadcasts short in order to air more political ads. With politics becoming increasingly polarized over the past 20-odd years, absence of objective local news doesn’t help ease that struggle, nor does it make most people think that there’s anything to be done anywhere close to home.
While some people—especially younger people—might say, “who cares? I get my news from social media anyway,” O’Boyle points out that, “the majority of news coverage, and particularly local news coverage, still comes from local newsrooms.” In other words, just because you saw some article about a police scandal on social media doesn’t mean it wasn’t uncovered by some intrepid reporter first. Additionally, says O’Boyle, “a healthy news ecosystem” is essential if you want “to cut through some of the viral nonsense that’s getting passed around” these days.
The move to deregulation has real impact beyond the newsroom, as well. Now, companies like Disney can own TV networks, film studios—something that McChesney notes was illegal until the ’90s—magazines, newspapers, radio stations, amusement parks, sports teams, book publishing houses, and more. That kind of conglomeration can make things incredibly murky for most consumers, as, for instance, the cast of Once Upon A Time, a show on ABC—a network owned by Disney—helps promote Zootopia—a movie made by Disney and starring one of the cast members of Once, Ginnifer Goodwin—as they get snapped by paparazzi at Disneyland, and so on, and so on, and so on.
As Common Cause notes, the Telecom Act Of 1996 also helped deregulate cable rates, meaning that the act is the reason you’re paying $100 a month for what you could probably get online for “free” if you were just willing to sit through a few Honda ads. That kind of deregulation can seem confusing for those who advocate for the free market. Why, for instance, couldn’t some company decide to offer cable to a town or region at a fraction of the cost of what Time Warner might charge? Let McChesney explain:
The principle behind the ’96 act was, “Well, we created all these cable monopolies [before 1996] because you can only have one company ripping up the roads and putting in their cable wires… The ’96 act was when the internet was going to change everything, so [the thought was that] now telephone companies can use their wires to transmit television shows. Suddenly, [the thought was] we’ll have at least two companies in every market competing… and then [people] said, “If those guys can do it, maybe the electric utility can send stuff over the electric wires, and pretty soon we’ll have wireless companies who will utilize new technologies, so there can be all sorts of people competing. [In reality,] their wires weren’t as good and there wasn’t enough money in it.
At this point, it’s just not economically feasible or smart to set up a cable television operation, meaning more companies are either resorting to using satellite dishes or just focusing on streaming, à la Hulu (a company that’s jointly owned by NBCUniversal, Fox, Disney, and Turner Broadcasting, by the way) or iTunes. Now, as Common Cause notes, “Roughly 98 percent of households with access to cable are served by only one cable company,” and that company can pretty much charge what it wants. That’s especially true if that company is able to offer more and more channels—all generally owned by the same five parent corporations—thus giving the cable provider reason to claim that, since it offers more than what you might get on regular old broadcast TV, it can charge more. And like idiots, we all pay it, because that’s what cable costs.
That kind of market exclusion also applies to cellphones and internet service, something the rest of the world pays much less for. McChesney, whose wife is Norwegian, says that in Norway, “There are people paying much less for this really good modern service,” asking, “Why the hell can’t we have this?” As he puts it, “the rip-off prices people pay for their AT&T and Verizon cellphones, and their cable contracts and their satellite dishes” could be a big issue moving forward, especially if some politician “has the courage to raise that issue.” Google could also prove to be a player in the industry, begrudgingly, with its own broadband service, Google Fiber. The company started installing its own internet in municipalities like Kansas City and Austin, “just to show,” McChesney says, “that we can actually have speeds that are 1,000 times greater than what we have.” Calling it a “shot over the bow to AT&T and Verizon,” McChesney says Fiber is the telecom equivalent of Google saying, “Come on, you jerks. You’re making all this money. Let’s invest in a decent network so we can have high speeds like other places in the world.”
The web is a wild frontier, though. According to McChesney, “Thirteen of the 30 largest companies in the United States are” internet giants, like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook. And, because those companies—even with their streaming video services—are internet-based, they’re classified as information service providers, and thus not subject to supervision by the Federal Communications Commission. While sites like Apple and Facebook might have plausible deniability that they should be subject to FCC regulations, given that they offer services other than just media streaming, sites like Netflix, Cracked, and YouTube might have less of a case. And yet, they’re entirely self-regulated, constrained only by the market and by what advertisers will put up with. Even sites like NBC.com and CNN.com are self-regulated, despite the fact that their parent companies are under the long—albeit lenient—arm of the FCC.
Twenty years later, the Telecommunications Act Of 1996 still casts a long pall on media. The average consumer might not realize it, but every time they turn on their TV, check their cellphone, or access the internet, they’re subject to its provisions and beholden to both its virtues and faults. And while the public might be getting gradually more attuned to the act’s faults thanks in part to internet activism on issues like Net Neutrality, for instance, it still doesn’t look like any of the Telecom Act’s backward thinking will change any time soon. As Duke professor and communications scholar Phil Napoli told The A.V. Club, “Nothing new and better has come along since, so it’s still oddly and disgustingly the guiding legislation for our whole communications infrastructure.” A single piddling act—one that was hardly presented to the public and passed with overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate—has put thousands of people out of work, destroyed entire industries, and cost you thousands of dollars for shitty internet and substandard cell service. Think about that when you go to the polls this November.