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FCC targets big media

The commission decided this week to increase regulation of the cable market and to allow some newspapers to own a radio or TV station in the same market.

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The potential for more diverse, democratic voices in local news has either just gotten better thanks to the Federal Communications Commission, or been set back in an FCC corporate Christmas giveaway.

So go the differing interpretations of this week's votes to change the rules that govern the complex and fast-changing US media landscape.

In a contentious, late-night meeting on Tuesday, a split commission voted to allow some newspapers to also own a television or radio station in the same market, which partially lifted a ban that's been in place for more than 30 years. In an equally controversial vote, though, the FCC also decided to increase regulation of the cable market, passing a rule that would cap at 30 percent the portion of cable stations that can be owned by one company.

So what does it all mean to the reader, viewer, and Web surfer? It depends on where that person sits. Everyone agrees on the goal, which is to ensure plenty of diverse voices in the public sphere. But the question is, in this digital world where TV can now be watched on the computer, either through a high-speed phone line or a cable connection: What's the best way to guarantee no one group gets too much power over what people see?

"The simple math is that if you consolidate, you have fewer voices," says Monroe Price of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "But that's hard to tell empirically.... Things are changing so fast."

Still, there are clear ideological lines. Consumer advocates and Democrats in general applaud the FCC's decision to increase regulation of the cable industry, which they believe has been taking advantage of customers.

For years, cable rates have been going up faster than the rate of inflation, and the industry opposes allowing consumers to pay only for the channels they want – instead of a set package. In addition, cable giants such as Time Warner and Comcast have now allied themselves with large content producers like Viacom, Disney, and Fox, giving them enormous power over which cable channels thrive.

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