Sens. to GAO: Study Access to Independent Programming

Sens. Dorgan, Leahy, Kohl Ask Government Accountability Office to Investigate State of Independent Programming

A trio of powerful senators asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the state of independent programming.

Media-consolidation critic Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) teamed up with Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Antitrust Subcommittee chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) on the letter to acting comptroller general Gene Dodaro to ask for a GAO study, prompted by their concerns that media consolidation has squeezed out independent programmers.

Independent programmers made that same argument during Federal Communications Commission field hearings on media ownership, as well as at hearings on network neutrality, arguing that the Internet was their best hope of finding a place to distribute their content.

The Senators in their letter cited figures showing that while 50% of primetime programming was independently produced in 1989, only 18% of such programming is independently produced today.

They argued in the letter that subscription video has not "come to fruition" as a competitive alternative for independents. "The parent companies of the cable operators and broadcast companies control much of the subscription-video content," they wrote.

They cited deregulatory moves in Congress and the FCC, including the repeal of the Financial Interest and Syndication Rule by the FCC in 1995. They also pointed to the December 2007 loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule and "new restrictions on cable and other subscription-video operators." Along with loosening the broadcast rules, the FCC reimposed a 30% cap on cable subscribership and lowered rates it can charge for leased-access programmers, although the FCC billed them as helping competition and a diversity of programming voices. Among the questions they want the study to address are:

• The sources of programming on television;

• Factors contributing to the current distribution of programming;

• The impact of consolidation, on independent programming and diversity;

• The degreee to which the Internet has become an outlet for such programming and how much the major media companies "dominate" the most widely viewed sites; and

• What changes may need to be made to programming carriage laws and regulations.