Satellite television has risen from nowhere ten years ago to capture almost one-quarter of America's pay-TV market.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, operators such as DirecTV (now controlled by News Corporation) and EchoStar's Dish Network supply 23.7 million households with satellite services, around 22% of the total pay-TV market. A decade ago they did not even exist.

Cable, which used to enjoy a virtual monopoly on subscription television, is now accessed by 70.5m households, some 75% of the sector. The remaining 3% of pay-TV homes receive broadcasts from the likes of telephone companies and electricity suppliers.

The figures are contained in the FCC's tenth yearly report on competition in the TV industry. Among the regulator's other findings was a threefold surge in the number of channels on subscription TV -- from just over one hundred ten years ago to over 330 in 2003.

"The vast majority of Americans enjoy more choice, more programming and more services than any time in history," declared the FCC.

The findings appear to undermine much of the recent criticism of the regulator. It has been claimed the FCC has been working in the interests of big media firms by allowing them to own more TV, radio and newspaper properties, thereby reducing competition. However, the watchdog and its supporters have argued that the rise of the pay-TV sector has forced a reappraisal of traditional limitations.

Such arguments resurfaced at an FCC hearing held this week on localism in broadcasting -- part of the regulator's efforts to respond to the wave of criticism that followed its proposals for deregulation.

Many of the speakers at the hearing criticised the growth of Big Media, which they claim has little interest in local issues.

"We definitely think there should be more regulation that is responsible, that actually has the public interest in mind, rather than simple deregulation that usually just has the corporation, the advertisers, and the stockholders in mind," declared Hanna Sassanen from Philadelphia's Prometheus Radio Project.

Clear Channel Communications -- America's largest radio station group -- took the brunt of the criticism, as speakers accused it of advancing a right-wing political agenda and allowing opposing views little airtime.

But the media mammoth's vice president Tom Glade defended Big Media's record on regional coverage. "Localism is more than a concept," he insisted. "It's the way I operate my radio stations."

Data sourced from: The Washington Post Online; additional content by WARC staff