By Ira Teinowitz and James Hibberd
Opponents of media consolidation promised to step up their attack on proposed looser media ownership rules after staging heated opposition to increased ownership at a Federal Communications Commission hearing in Los Angeles last week.
As political turmoil in Washington over the Mark Foley page scandal increases the possibility of Democrats seizing control of the House, making ownership changes far less likely, both sides in the media consolidation debate are considering the next round.
Consumer groups said that they were hopeful the strong focus against consolidation combined with the additional hearings-the FCC is holding six hearings around the country compared with a single formal hearing last time rule changes were considered-will produce “a robust public record” that could make it harder for the FCC to further ease ownership rules.
Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, said consumer groups are also hopeful that the same appellate court decision that forced the FCC to abandon its earlier attempt to rewrite ownership rules will force the agency to be far more careful in assessing public comment. Activists such as Ms. Kenney are especially hopeful in light of recent revelations that an FCC study suggesting media concentration results in less local news was buried by the agency.
“Given the mandate from the court and what was revealed recently about covered-up evidence, it’s going to be hard to repeat the past mistakes,” she said. “The FCC is going to have to justify its actions. That’s not to say the commission can’t ignore some information, but if the rules don’t take into account all the data presented, it’s going to have a pretty hard time.”
Big Media Absent
Meanwhile, media conglomerates were largely absent from the two Los Angeles hearings, during which speakers and audience members were near-unanimous in protesting consolidation.
National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO David Rehr, in an appearance at the National Press Club, acknowledged concern that the industry’s position hadn’t been forcefully presented.
“My own impression is these meetings bring out people who have particular points of view that are strongly felt on these issues,” Mr. Rehr said. “The first one doesn’t really proportionately represent America. Most people are very satisfied with media.”
NAB said it intends to mount a stronger defense of easing rules at the five future hearings still to be scheduled by the FCC.
At the L.A. hearing, producers, writers and union leaders led the charge to portray Hollywood as a largely middle-class industry whose significant workforce and worldwide product exports are being damaged by decreasing competition.
“While star salaries make the headlines, it’s the middle class among the talent in Hollywood who do most of the work, and these are the folks who are being squeezed out,” said Patric Verrone, president of the WGA. “Consolidation has led to tighter production budgets, smaller writing staffs and shorter careers.”
Marshall Herskovitz, president of the Producers Guild of America, said the government could break television conglomerates into a thousand smaller companies, and they could still make a profit.
“There needs to be a balance between the competitive marketplace and the local needs of the citizens across the country,” he said. “There’s no possible scenario that will prevent media companies from being profitable in the marketplace of America.”
Among those protesting consolidation were a few conservative organizations that found themselves alongside their usual opponents.
Tim Winter of the Parents Television Council said he felt “like a skunk at a picnic” sitting among guild leaders and producers at the meeting, but noted that in the case of consolidation, they share similar goals.