‘My Little Genius’ and the Role of the FCC

By Erik Ugland

To the millions of credulous fans of FOX Reality Television, last month’s cancellation of “My Little Genius” was surely a disappointment.  The game show in which precocious grade-schoolers answer arcane questions for money (and the affections of their smothering parents) was shelved, prior to its premiere, after it was discovered that the show was – brace yourself – fake.

It turns out the producers were prepping the young contestants by feeding them answers to questions like, “What is a hemidemisemiquaver?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) quickly intervened and is now investigating whether the network violated rules prohibiting fraudulent contents.

Some people might view this as the perfect exercise of regulatory oversight – the FCC standing up for the public interest by rooting out deceptive practices.  To me, it illustrates everything that is wrong with the agency and its inverted policy priorities.
Over the past two decades, the FCC has diligently policed broadcasters’ compliance with a host of trifling regulations (most of which were adopted in the Paleolithic Period of mass communication when people had access to only a half-dozen TV signals).
At the same time, the agency has provided little serious scrutiny of media mergers and has helped facilitate the massive consolidation media power into the hands of a few corporate behemoths.

It is hard to think of a single media pathology that is not either caused or compounded by the consolidation of ownership: distribution bottlenecks, predatory pricing, conflicts of interest, homogenization of content, marginalization of minority voices, abandonment of international and investigative news.

Yet the FCC has ratified the mergers of AT&T with BellSouth, News Corp. with DirecTV, XM with Sirius, and soon, Comcast with NBC Universal, among many others, while continuing to spend millions of public dollars litigating over Janet Jackson’s now-ancient “wardrobe malfunction.”

This is not to say that every media merger is a denigration of the public interest, or that every FCC rule is an unwarranted invasion of broadcasters’ rights.

But the FCC commissioners need to justify their all trees/no forest predisposition.  They can start by explaining why the preservation of a diverse media marketplace is less important than the procedural integrity of a game show.

Eric Ugland is an Assistant Professor in the department of Broadcast and Electronic Communication at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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