Programming diversity alive and well

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Although not a slam-dunk for deregulation, there was much for broadcasters
to applaud in the Federal Communications Commission's one-dozen ownership
studies released Tuesday, including the findings that radio playlists and
network-TV programming are actually more diverse, and not less, since
deregulation, and that newspaper/TV combinations are no less diverse for their
shared parentage.

Not surprisingly, networks were found to favor their own programming post
fin-syn as they had pre-fin-syn.

The FCC commissioned the studies as part of its congressionally mandated
biennial review of ownership regulations.

The study on radio-format trends concluded that "the average number of
formats remained virtually unchanged and playlists were found to be more
diverse, not less, since the wave of consolidation began in 1996."

Another study
concluded that consolidation in the radio market only "modestly" increased local ad
prices.

And in the markets where concentration increased over time, rates actually
went down for both national and regional advertising.

The study on TV-programming diversity and the network program-selection
process since the repeal of fin-syn rules in 1995 concluded that despite some
suggestions to the contrary, "as the industry has become more consolidated,
program diversity has increased," some of that attributable to production
economics, i.e. the rise of less-expensive nonscripted shows like newsmagazines
and reality shows.

The studies struck a sour chord with some critics of industry consolidation
and prompted a note of warning from at least one FCC commissioner.

Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps today said the 'bare bones' studies
should not provide the sole basis for deciding the fate of media ownership
limits and said the commission goal of rewriting rules by April is too
ambitious.

"I am less interested in getting this done by April than in getting it done
right," he said during a press briefing. Copps said the FCC should hold field
hearings across the country to learn how a large cross-section of Americans
feels about further media deregulation.

Although some public advocates said that the dozen studies released Tuesday
in large part favor more deregulation, Copps said he had not examined them
sufficiently to draw a conclusion. "It's not clear there is a diversity of
thought," he said. Copps also said he regrets that no study looked at the
potential effects of further deregulation.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy,
complained that the studies largely back what he sees as FCC Chairman Michael
Powell's determination to pursue a deregulatory agenda. "The studies reveal a
deeply flawed perspective that, while ratifying the chairman's view, fails to
adequately assess the realities of the news and entertainment media marketplace.
A research agenda on this critical issue should be developed and conducted
outside of the FCC, not with staffers who must please the chairman," Chester
said

As to how the networks select programming, the study found that after the
repeal of the fin-syn rules -- which prevented networks from owning a financial
interest in the shows on their air -- the networks reverted to the pre-fin-syn
practice of favoring the shows in which they have a financial interest, although
it suggested that this trend could be self-correcting.

"All things being equal," the study said, "an internally produced show is
going to get an airing over one in which the network does not have an interest,"
and "with only limited exceptions," the study said, "all of the networks have
some financial stake in the new shows that appear on their air." The reason, the
study concluded, is financial pressures driven by corporate parents and new
competition. Those shows are also more likely to get a better time slot and more
time to find an audience.

The TV executives interviewed for the study said networks would continue to
increase their stakes, with some saying that ultimately, networks would have a piece
of every show on their air. But the study also saw the marketplace as providing
a built-in governor on that engine. Although the networks have a greater incentive
to select shows produced in-house or in which they have a stake, it said, "that
incentive continues to be tempered by networks' competing incentive to attract
audiences by selecting the 'best' program irrespective of its source."

Not all of the studies painted a rosy picture of
deregulation, however. One report found that increased concentration in local
broadcast markets will lead outlets holding greater market share to increase the
share of airtime devoted to commercials and other nonprogramming material.
Another found that newspapers, radio and broadcast TV generally are not
substitutes for each other in local markets, perhaps bolstering the argument for
seeking market "voice" tests based on a single service, rather than on all media
outlets in a market.

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