By Ira Teinowitz and James Hibberd
The Washington-based Federal Communications Commission goes Hollywood this week as the entire five-member commission journeys to the West Coast for a public hearing on media ownership.
The Tuesday hearing signals the start of the down-to-business phase of an ownership rules rewrite that could alter the country’s media landscape.
The meeting also is likely to rekindle a major political fight over whether the rules should be changed. The FCC’s last battle over media ownership drew a record outpouring of e-mail traffic to the agency and strayed into the political realm when it was mentioned by Democratic presidential candidates during their campaigns.
Consumer groups eventually won that battle when in June 2004 an appellate court overturned the FCC proposal that would have allowed a single company to own three TV stations, eight radio stations, the local cable system and the local daily newspaper in a market.
The court ruled that the FCC hadn’t adequately sought public access before unveiling the rules and that the FCC had relied too much on a study that weighted local daily newspapers equally with weeklies and shoppers in determining the impact of consolidation.
Meanwhile, consumer groups argue that consolidation eliminates disparate voices and that the Internet is no match for separate sources for local news.
“We want to inform the FCC of the impact that vertical integration and media concentration have had on the creative community,” said Jonathan Rintels of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, who plans to attend the hearing. “The exclusion of independent voices and views in prime time is not good for the public.”
The meeting will be divided into two sessions: the first considering issues about the creative community and independent programming, the second discussing the Los Angeles local media market.
Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, will appear on the latter panel presenting his research that shows the FCC’s proposal will damage the Los Angeles market.
“We’ll prove that, even in Los Angeles, the proposed policy would be disastrous for competition, localism and diversity,” he said. “The FCC chairman has said he was going to go out and listen to the people, and I’m going to give him an earful.”
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s choice of Los Angeles as the first of six public hearings is a sharp departure from the FCC under previous chairman Michael Powell, who scheduled a single public hearing, in Richmond, Va.
The pressure on the FCC to change the rules is intense. Newspaper publishers want existing rules that block them from purchasing broadcast properties in their newspapers’ markets altered, and medium-size and smaller-market TV station owners want to be able to more easily acquire additional properties in a market. They argue that the FCC’s rules are outdated.