Big Media's Big Headache

It's hard to imagine a more motley crew: the National Rifle Association, the National Organization of Women, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and dozens of other groups of all stripes and political persuasion. Time was, the only thing they could all agree on was that the sky is blue. Then along came an issue with remarkable powers to get them all working together: the prospect of big media companies growing even bigger.

Their forceful opposition to Big Media persuaded the House of Representatives last week to, in effect, overturn a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that would have relaxed media ownership rules, allowing companies like Viacom and News Corp. to own TV stations that reach 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent. If the House's vote becomes law, it could mean Viacom and News Corp. will have to sell some stations to get back under the cap.

Media giantism resulting from deregulation may sound like a vague threat, but that ended up helping longstanding opponents like the Consumers Union build support for the cause. Because media giantism was so vague, groups could see their own fears reflected in it--that their views would be squelched by a homogenized media, or that racy programming in prime time would spread. Even groups who opposed the war in Iraq joined in, out of concern that broadcast networks and other big news outlets weren't giving sufficient air time to their views (Clear Channel, the giant radio company, fueled their anger by helping to organize a backlash against the Dixie Chicks for their opposition to George W. Bush and the war). Many people felt that FCC chairman Michael Powell was overly dismissive of their concerns. All of which led to "a rare political celestial convergence," says Jeffrey Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, which helped organize much of the opposition. In all, there were an estimated 2.3 million e-mails, phone calls and letters opposing the FCC's move, not to mention public protests.

Big Media faced opposition from its own ranks, too. Independent local TV stations opposed the effort by the networks to buy up more stations and expand their reach. Some networks, for example, have sought to force local stations to subsidize the multibillion-dollar rights fees that networks pay to the professional sports leagues to carry their games.

But don't count out Big Media just yet. The Bush administration has threatened to veto any legislation that seeks to roll back the deregulation. And last week, the media giants pledged to wage a fierce battle in Congress to protect, and even add to, their recent gains. Viacom, for instance, says it may take the issue to the courts, which already have ruled favorably for the largest players on the station-ownership issue. But there's one revelation they can't fight: the very same audience that can kill a network's TV show by changing channels can now dictate programming in Washington on media policy.