Watchdogs howl over stance on station cap

Jun 11, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The campaign by the major television networks to ax the federal cap on TV station ownership had watchdog group representatives at each other’s throats last week arguing over who really speaks for the public.
Sparking the debate was a recent letter from the National Consumers League to the Federal Communications Commission endorsing NBC’s pitch on the issue-that the agency’s cap barring broadcasters from owning TV stations reaching more than 35 percent of the nation’s TV households must be axed or relaxed-pronto.
“If free TV is to survive, Congress and the administration must act quickly to remove the regulatory discrimination against broadcasters, especially in the critical area of ownership caps,” said Linda Golodner, National Consumers League president, in the letter.
But in an interview with Electronic Media, Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Media Education, said all other major watchdog groups-at least the ones that regularly cover FCC issues-oppose the networks’ deregulatory campaign.
“Luckily the networks were able to find a clueless organization that has the word `consumer’ in their title to support them,” Mr. Chester said. “The only thing the National Consumer League knows about television is it can be turned on and off.”
Holly Anderson, NCL’s director of communications, said she didn’t know why Ms. Golodner, who was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment, had sent the letter.
She said the group normally focused on child labor, food and drug safety, and telemarketing and Internet fraud.
In addition, Ms. Anderson conceded that the group had received contributions from the Peacock Network. But she said that as far as she knew, those were limited to some promotional key chains and a $500 ticket to the group’s annual awards dinner in 1999.
But Ms. Anderson defended Ms. Golodner’s right to call the ownership issue the way she sees it for her constituents.
“We respect all consumer groups,” Ms. Anderson said. “Sometimes we have differing opinions, but we’re all working for consumers.”
Bob Okun, NBC vice president, Washington, said he believed that despite the fuss, the FCC should take Ms. Golodner’s filing seriously.
Mr. Okun also predicted that her letter would be followed by similar groups’ support for the networks.
“This is the beginning of a broad base of support for removing a silly anachronistic ownership rule that hurts broadcasters,” Mr. Okun said.