The turf war over media deregulation last week brought to mind images of nervous broadcasters and others speaking from behind screens or with voice-distorting devices. Maybe the government will have to create a witness-protection program for repentant big-media execs.
The picture seems ridiculous, but FCC Commissioner Michael Copps wasn't fooling around when he announced plans to allow anonymous testimony by media professionals who criticize industry consolidation. "I hear privately that speaking out on this issue would cost many people their careers," he said last week. "We need to find a way for them to be heard without fear of retribution."
Although it likely won't extend to hoods and voice synthesizers, the promise of anonymity could boost the input into the proceedings, including at two new hearings Copps has arranged.
To allay witnesses' fears and to gain more evidence for tempering the FCC's media-deregulation proceeding, Copps said he and other commissioners are considering an anonymous-testimony procedure for producers, writers, musicians, actors and broadcasters afraid that they will be a living example of the old saw "You'll never work in this town again, kid."
A Copps aide said the FCC has procedures for receiving anonymous evidence that they want to adapt to public hearings.
There are anecdotes about media professionals' fear, albeit few solid enough to stand up in court. Responding to Copps's suggestion, Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley complained of an "unofficial gag order" on media coverage of consolidation by the news arms of big media companies.
When rock musician Don Henley told members of the Senate Commerce Committee about a fellow musician denied airplay on Clear Channel radio stations for declining requests for a promotional concert, he would describe her only as a client of his manager.
Media-company officials say fears of retaliation are a paranoid reaction to power they don't have.
"Artists wield monopoly power of their own," said Lowry Mays, chairman of Clear Channel Communications, the country's largest radio group and concert promoter before a Senate committee two weeks ago. "They won't think twice" about signing with competing concert promoters.
If Copps's call for anonymous testimony seems a bit hysterical, he was not the only player reacting anxiously to the debate.
When he announced that two more "official" ownership hearings will be held in March—in Seattle and Durham, N.C.—a testy Powell quickly forced him to issue a new press release clarifying that the only official FCC imprimatur was from Copps. Powell also dismissed Copps's new hearings as "a 19th century whistle-stop tour."
In another sign of policymakers' anxiety last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) demanded in a letter to Powell that the "late-spring" timetable for completing the ownership review be honored. He appeared displeased by some public suggestions that the review could last until fall, but several sources speculated that Powell asked for the letter to counter Copps's charge that the review is moving too fast.
While public servants were raising a ruckus, lobbyists were busy laying out their arguments for or against deregulation. Although the various parties aren't officially jettisoning calls to eliminate or retain rules in their entirety, an examination of the final round of comments submitted last week reveals that many are full of ideas for revisions rather than insisting on absolutist positions (see box).
The networks did aggressively attack independent producers' and writers' efforts to resurrect the financial-interest and syndication (fin-syn) rules limiting network-owned shows in prime time. "Don't bring back the hoary old ... rules," said attorney Richard Wiley, whose clients include CBS.
A creative-community coalition is calling on the FCC to limit networks' share of in-house shows to 75%, blaming consolidation for and the demise of original fin-syn 10 years ago for a lack of opportunities for independent TV creators.
In comments last week, the networks said the creative coalition exaggerates networks' in-house prime time programming and "bears no relationship to reality." With shows produced by one network studio and carried by another, news and sports, and programs co-produced with independent studios excluded, network share drops to 35% from the coalition estimate of 76%.
The coalition calls that creative bookkeeping but adds the real danger is the trend toward network dominance.
NAB: Allow TV duopolies in smaller markets by permitting stations with a 10 share or greater to pair with ones below a 10 share. Permit triopolies in big markets among bottom-rated and financially struggling stations. Count cable and satellite TV toward audience share. Retain 35% cap on household reach.
Allow TV duopolies anywhere so long as all stations in a market don't end up with one owner.
Eliminate the "voice test" that requires at least eight separately owned stations after TV duopoly but retain prohibitions on pairings among top-four-rated stations in a market
Immediately raise TV-reach cap from 35% to 50%, then increase by 2.5% every two years. Eliminate duopoly restrictions (NAB 10/10 plan [see above] is an "acceptable" transition). Replace voice test for local radio/TV combos with ad-revenue test similar to radio "flagging" policy. Retain UHF discount.
Abolish local ownership limits.
Eliminate all ownership rules and replace with technology-neutral "safety net" that measures diversity across all "modern media," including currently uncounted Internet, weekly newspapers and regional magazines.
Network Affiliated Stations Alliance:
Retain 35% household-reach cap, ban common ownership among ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
Coalition for Program Diversity:
Writers, directors and actors want broadcast networks' share of self-produced shows capped at 75%.
Maintain current radio-market measurements. If not, grandfather combos threatened by tighter rules.
Connecticut attorney general:
Retain multiple- and cross-ownership limits, or states will take a more active role in blocking mergers.
Minority Media Telecommunications Council:
Phase in ownership-limit increases. Break up TV duopolies; replace with jointly operated stations with separate news operations. Create merger "diversity index" based on antitrust measures. Consider "diversity credits" that companies could trade to boost diversity measures.
MAP, consumer groups:
Eliminate 50% discount for UHF stations in ownership tallies. Retain all other rules.
Newspaper Association of America:
Eliminate restrictions on local newspaper/broadcast crossownership.