Consumer Groups Prepare for Media Ownership Battle

Jun 20, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Two years after helping to block a Federal Communications Commission attempt to loosen media-ownership restrictions, consumer groups are promising an even stronger fight as the agency gets set to reconsider those rules. They’re kicking off the fight with weapons including animated video clips and a letter to congressmen.

On the eve of a Wednesday FCC vote that will kick off the agency’s re-examination of the ownership rules, consumer groups said they expect to outdo their last grassroots campaign, which set records by generating 2 million comments to the panel.

“When Consumers Union started on this five or six years ago, there were very few people engaged on this in Capitol Hill, certainly not in the field,” said Gene Kimmelman, VP of Consumers Union. “Now this is like an enormous army crossing the entire political spectrum using tools from the Web, across to straight local activism and town meetings.”

The FCC’s next rewrite of media-ownership rules will determine how many media outlets a company can own in a single market. Media conglomerates such as Tribune Co. have argued that ownership of multiple television stations, radio broadcasters, cable providers and newspapers in the same city helps them compete. Opponents say such concentration mutes diverse voices in the media.

Gary Flowers, a spokesman for Rainbow/Push, said the group will lobby the FCC and organize local efforts around media-ownership. Other groups in the coalition include Common Cause, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Newspaper Guild.

One tool in the campaign is a video animation and song called “The Tower” that’s posted on Consumers Union Hearusnow.org Web site. Mr. Kimmelman said he hopes viewers will forward the clip around the Web.

The video produced by The Animation Farm, Austin, Texas, features a song from the Austin Lounge Lizards warning about media consolidation.

“It was the tower, big media power, beaming down from heaven every minute, every hour,” says part of the song’s refrain.

The group also today released a letter sent to Congress by Mr. Kimmelman and Frank Blethen, publisher-CEO of the Seattle Times, suggesting that the financial justification for cross ownership of newspapers and broadcasters has been overstated by consolidation proponents.

“While we agree that newspapers and broadcasters need to develop stronger business strategies to attract revenue, there is no evidence that combining local newspapers with local television broadcasters will address that challenge,” the letter said.

The FCC is scheduled to vote tomorrow on whether to seek comment on how the agency should rewrite ownership rules.

There were indications that commissioners were still negotiating on issues about whether the public notice would include a schedule of public hearings across the country or some related effort to conclude the FCC’s look at so-called localism issues.

The FCC under former Chairman Michael Powell imposed sweeping ownership changes that would have let one company hold three TV stations, eight radio stations, the local cable provider and the local newspaper in a single large market. A divided appellate court overturned those rules, in part citing comments that people had sent to the FCC.

The court ruled that the agency hadn’t done enough to assess the rules’ impact on consumers before acting. The court also said the FCC wrongly based its analysis of the proposal’s effect on the diversity of voices in the media on dubious statistics that weighed the impact of daily newspapers equal to weekly papers and the Web.