Testimony of Charles Benton at FCC Media Ownership Hearing

Testimony of Charles Benton at FCC Media Ownership Hearing
Chicago, September 20, 2007

I'm Charles Benton, Chairman of the Benton Foundation, that was founded in 1981. But my interest in media policy and reform started long before that. Nearly 40 years ago, my wife, Marjorie, and I helped create the “Citizen's Committee to Save WFMT” shortly after it was purchased by the Tribune Company. We were concerned about keeping the FM station independent in order to preserve its format. Ultimately our Committee fought the purchase of WFMT by the Tribune on the basis of its concentrated control of media in Chicago. After a long struggle with the FCC and the Federal Appeals Court, the Tribune finally ended up donating the station to charity. That is why public broadcasting station WTTW now owns WFMT and this classical music super station not only survives but thrives.

As we all know, and as I just illustrated, the Tribune Company dominates the Chicago media landscape, owning the area’s most-read newspaper, most listened-to radio station, a popular TV station, the area’s only 24 hour local cable news channel, the Chicago Cubs and more. Beyond the Tribune, Chicago media outlets are mainly owned by other non-local large conglomerates like News Corp, GE, CBS, Clear Channel and Bonneville International.

Tonight, the Benton Foundation presents a survey of recent research on the state of the media in Chicago - you can find it here on the table in the back and on the Benton Foundation website. Together, the work of Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America, the University of Wisconsin’s NewsLab, Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and Columbia College’s Community Media Workshop show that:

1) Ownership of Chicago’s broadcast media does not reflect the City’s diversity:

  • Among the nation’s 22 largest radio markets, Chicago has the lowest level of minority ownership.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities make up nearly two-thirds of the population in the city of Chicago, yet own only 5 percent of Chicago’s full-power commercial radio and television stations.
  • Women own just 6 percent of Chicago’s full-power commercial radio and television stations, despite being over half the population.

2) Chicago media ownership is too concentrated and predominantly non-local:

  • Four firms control 58 percent of the entire local news market in Chicago.
  • Together, four companies (Tribune Company, Clear Channel, CBS, and Bonneville International) control over two-thirds of the revenues from radio in the Chicago market.
  • Non-local owners control nearly two-thirds of Chicago’s commercial radio stations.

3) There are less media outlets here covering Chicago – and less reporters at the outlets that remain. Chicago’s commercial television newscasts are failing to adequately serve and represent the community:

  • In the weeks before the 2006 election, Chicago’s commercial broadcast television stations devoted almost twice as much air time, on average, to political advertising than to election coverage during a typical 30 minute newscast.
  • On local television newscasts in Chicago, for every one woman who is heard in a story, there are two men. For every non-White person who is heard in a story, there are three White people.
  • Only 45% of every local news program here is devoted to news stories. Sports and weather each take up between 9-10% of the time on average, and commercials take up almost 30% of the time.

Finally, in a report released today by Children Now, we've learned that the total hours of children's broadcast TV programming is down 46% in Chicago since 1998. Nationally, Children Now found that duopoly station owners reduced their service to children substantially more than stations with one TV license in a local market.

Yet the FCC is considering changes and waivers to ownership rules that would allow for continued and increased media consolidation, and would likely further degrade the quality of news and number of minority and female owners of media outlets. As recommended today by Commissioner Adelstein, I hope the FCC will create a bipartisan and independent panel to review the 40 plus policy recommendations by the FCC's own Diversity Committee.

At various times, Chicago has been an incubator for innovative programming, a leader in radio, TV and public broadcasting. Now, as the capacity of radio and television broadcasters multiplies with the migration to digital technology, far from acting as a model, Chicago broadcasters are inadequately serving our community. Combined, this research shows that the FCC must:

  • do more to encourage minority and female media ownership,
  • prevent more consolidation in the media marketplace, and
  • hold broadcasters more accountable for serving the public.

At the very least, the FCC needs to monitor more intently the fulfillment of its localism, diversity and competition goals before loosening media ownership rules, and allowing increased concentration of media ownership in Chicago. In fact, what it should do is to enforce the rules it has had in place for decades. Thanks for your time and attention.