Voices and Choices - Broadcasting & Cable

Voices and Choices

The sweet sounds of heated, contentious and robust debate
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It was invigorating to stand amid the myriad competing voices in last week's media-ownership hearing/not hearing in New York. It felt a lot like democracy.

I had the honor of moderating the daylong forum at the Columbia University Law School. (For the most part, that honor amounted to trying to work a stopwatch and getting the 22 speakers to stop after five minutes by flashing some index cards. No easy task, especially with regard to the three Viacom executives who spoke.)

But I learned a bit about what's at stake in the FCC's current review of the remaining station-ownership rules. So did, I presume, the four FCC commissioners—Powell, Martin, Copps and Adelstein—who tag-teamed the five panels of media executives, union reps, musicians in search of airplay, Hollywood types and others.

I also felt the passion of some of the opposition to dereg, something you don't get from reading comments on the FCC Web site. In an editorial a few weeks back, this newspaper derided the idea of field hearings, observing that folk wisdom was overrated and hearings will produce little everybody doesn't already know. I'll stick with that. But, if the FCC commissioners want to know how people feel
about consolidation, they had better get out there. In fact, they are doing so, although not to the extent that dereg opponent Copps would like. In February, there will be another informal hearing at the University of Southern California and a formal FCC hearing in Richmond, Va.

As I said, the Viacom executives—Marty Franks, David Poltrack and Dennis Swanson—were a bit long-winded, but I had to forgive them. The panels were not balanced, but that was understood by all going in. The event was organized by the anti-dereg forces that don't get the kind of access to government officials that the likes of Viacom take for granted. It was really their day in court. (Midway through the proceedings, one of the organizers complained I was being too pro media in some of my questioning. Touchy. Touchy. Believe me, I was playing it down the middle. It was I who kept mentioning Rich Billotti's finding that 85% of prime time was controlled by five companies [see chart].)

Truth is, however, I am not neutral in this debate. I am going to need (and I would hope the FCC would need) some concrete evidence that the extraordinary amount of media consolidation that has occurred over the past 20 years has significantly diminished the good old marketplace of ideas. I heard no such evidence at the hearing. Most of what I heard were more numbers showing that the industry was more consolidated (granted) and that the big media were exploiting smaller companies and program producers (if so, it's a job for the Justice Department).

For instance, TV time buyer Jon Mandel complained that the big media companies were using their clout to boost ad prices and that the Big Four networks had cut independent producers out of prime time. Also calling for some relief from the heavy hand of the Big Four were actor Richard Masur and producer Tom Fontana. Again, what they need is a good antitrust attorney to work Justice, not a communications attorney to work the FCC.

Mandel tried to make it an FCC issue by arguing that the broadcast networks' exclusion of truly independent producers had turned prime time into "a bland landscape." But Jon, do you really want the FCC to regulate prime time based on how "bland" the five commissioners think it is?

One legitimate gripe, often heard, is that the major TV outlets will not cover this issue. That really is a problem. According to organizers, the hearing was Webcast and broadcast by Pacifica's WBAI(FM) New York. And one of the anti-dereg firebrands said Bill Moyers had a camera there for his public-affairs show on PBS. None of that is going to the masses, I'm afraid.

When I asked Viacom's Dennis Swanson where his crew was, he said TV was conflicted, that it had a difficult time covering a story with itself in the middle. Some truth there, but it also sounded like a cop-out. Hey, Don Hewitt, here's a chance to tweak your bosses as they try to push you out the door.

Westchester radio broadcaster Bill O'Shaughnessy was sharply critical. "Independent voices are being replaced by the cookie-cutter cacophony of the same-old, same-old music and often accompanied by vulgar, outrageous and tasteless stunts."

But O'Shaughnessy made no call for government regulation. Indeed, he finished up by quoting former New York Sen. Jacob Javits: "You either believe in the genius of the free enterprise system or you do not."

Jessell may be reached at hjessell@reedbusiness.com

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