NBC White House drama The West Wing took direct aim at media consolidation Wednesday night with an episode that hit more hot-button topics than a Media Access Project alert. It was arguably the most play the issue has recieved on network prime time.
C.J. Craig, the White House press secretary played by Allison Janney, is stumped about how to explain to reporters the justification for the congressional compromise FCC rule that allows major media corporations to buy TV stations that reach 39.37% of TV viewers. "That’s like a sentence that needs a decoder ring," Craig complained.
Craig discovers (in an all-too-familiar-looking mass of FCC paper), that a certain fictitious media company has bought nine stations illegally (the real-life big companies get legal waivers) and that the compromise actually allows big media to remain big, rather than being the "victory for the little guy" as advertised.
She begins pressuring reporters to cover the story. "The FCC is literally posting bail for big media companies that are gobbling up TV stations like greasy hors d’oeuvres," she tells reporters in her office.
She also invokes the names of Clear Channel and Comcast and Tribune, says that new rules allow one company to own outlets in 199 of 210 media markets, and says local news is suffering.
When the reporters balk, saying their business desks are on it and that there is, in fact, no shortage of media competition, she accuses them of being afraid of irking their corporate parents, a real-life charge familiar to anyone who has attended a Media Access Project or Consumer Federation of America press conference.
Ultimately, CJ makes her point by overseeing an "extreme makeover" of the White House press room, removing all the seats save for one for each big media company--leaving essentially only one row of seats--one each for Viacom, News Corp., Clear Channel, Disney, NBC parent GE, and Time Warner--and then letting reporters fendfor themselves. The show can't be accused of playing favorites; it airs on NBC and is produced by Warner Bros.
The episode didn’t present only CJ’s side, however. Her boyfriend continually told her that he never watched local TV news and that he could turn on CNN any time (a Time Warner company). And White House Chief of Staff Leo McGary, played by John Spencer, argues that even the "little guy "independent TV stations earn tens of millions of dollars and that it’s not the White House’s place to interfere with decisions made by independent agencies.
Still, Spencer, with a twinkle, volunteers to cover the costs of the makeover and the episode's closing point is that while the White House may not succeed in stopping consolidation, it shouldn't stop trying.