Ownership Consolidation Ripped By Speakers at FCC L.A. Hearing
October 4, 2006 at 6:31 AM (PT)
The FCC's LOS ANGELES-EL SEGUNDO open hearing TUESDAY to hear comments from the creative community and community activists on media ownership concentrated mostly on the effects of consolidation on network TV programming, but also touched on issues like radio playlists and news coverage.
The afternoon session at USC opened with Chairman KEVIN MARTIN noting, "I recognize many of the concerns expressed about increased consolidation and preservation of diversity. But, also critical to our review is exploring and understanding the competitive realities of the media marketplace. It is our task to ensure that our ownership rules take into account the competitive environment in which media companies operate while also ensuring the promotion of localism and diversity."
MARTIN added, "We are just beginning this process. We are working to develop a record, with hearings like this one today and through the written comment process, on which to base our decisions. It is important that the record be complete before we make any decisions about whether and how any of our rules should be revised."
Commissioner MICHAEL COPPS repeated his charge that the Commission had failed to consider public comments in its past ownership rules deliberations but that "we're back at square one, and it's all up for grabs." Emphasizing the term "public airwaves" to cheers from the audience, he wondered whether the creative community can get access to broadcasting.
Commissioner JONATHAN ADELSTEIN spoke of hearing "the same sorry story" from the public about media consolidation, and welcomed Reps. MAXINE WATERS (D-CA) and DIANE WATSON (D-CA) and Rev. JESSE JACKSON for their support. The goal is to "pursue the public interest, not the interest of those who seek to profit from the public airwaves," ADELSTEIN asserted, dismissing alternative channels like the Internet and stressing the control broadcast stations have over news and culture. He called the FCC's deregulation of the industry a "dangerous policy" that allowed fewer owners to block access to the airwaves by minorities, and decried the elimination of financial-syndication and prime time access rules that he credited with being responsible for shows like "STAR TREK" (which predated the rules) and "THAT 70'S SHOW" (which aired in the deregulated era). ADELSTEIN also ripped TV news programming for a "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality.
Commissioner DEBORAH TAYLOR TATE, struggling with a scratchy voice, dispensed with her written comments and told the audience that "we're here to listen to you," and Commissioner ROBERT MCDOWELL said that he would listen "with an open mind" and that "we need the information that only you can provide" to determine whether the rules should be changed.
Reps. Waters, Watson Rip Consolidation
Rep. WATERS told the gathering that media ownership is "a very serious issue" and that a lack of diversity "puts our democracy in danger." She tore into the LOS ANGELES TIMES for its PULITZER PRIZE-winning reporting on problems at the KING-DREW MEDICAL CENTER, a series she called an "attack" designed to force the close the controversial hospital, and noted that the TIMES is owned by TRIBUNE, which also owns KTLA (TV)/LOS ANGELES, a situation that WATERS said should have been blocked by the cross-ownership rules and should have been denied before KTLA's license renewal. She said that she would be filing "a lot of opposition" to KTLA's request for a permanent waiver to own both the paper and the TV station. Listing TRIBUNE's nationwide properties, she concluded, "If that's not concentration, I don't know what is." The KING-DREW series outlined mismanagement and community/political interference at the SOUTH CENTRAL facility that may have led to several patient deaths.
Rep. WATSON said that "media consolidation affects all of us" and decried the media's quest for higher ratings for restricting access for some producers. She stressed that fewer media outlets affects the number of union jobs available. "We need to ensure that the spirit of American enterpreneurism is not stifled by corporate consolidation," she added.
Jackson: Ownership Concentration "Genocide"
Rev. JACKSON said that he hoped that "we will be sincerely heard, and not just tolerated," decrying budget cuts and media-ownership concentration that he likened to "a kind of genocide." JACKSON read statistics from a FREE PRESS study showing low minority and female ownership of broadcast stations. "Too few people own too much media at the expense of too many people," JACKSON told the Commissioners. "Media ownership should look like AMERICA." JACKSON joined WATERS in criticizing TRIBUNE, noting that the company is based in CHICAGO and owns the TIMES and KTLA in LOS ANGELES; he asked the Commission to hold its next meeting in CHICAGO, where "that company" is headquartered.
TV Network-Studio Vertical Integration Comes Under Fire From Producers, DIrectors
On a panel with representatives of the creative community and independent programming, TV producer STEPHEN J. CANNELL recounted his ability to move "THE ROCKFORD FILES" and "THE COMMISH" to new networks after rejection by ABC and CBS, respectively, and how the deregulation that allowed the networks to get back into program production and syndication blocked his ability to sell programming and ended up with CBS demanding a piece of a show before putting it on the schedule. Director TAYLOR HACKFORD, representing the DIRECTORS' GUILD, noted that distribution outlets have multiplied but "diversity of source... is nonexistent," referring to the number of studios that can finance expensive television projects. HACKFORD proposed a rule requiring TV networks to devote 25% of their primetime schedules to independent productions.
SCREEN ACTORS GUILD National First VP and actress ANNE-MARIE JOHNSON decried that the independent producers making casting decisions are "a thing of the past," and noted that the networks now make those calls; she called for a requirement that casting decisions be left to independent producers and joined HACKFORD in calling for the 25% independent production rule.
MONA MANGAN of the WGA, EAST said that news writers are being affected by "pervasive" budget and staffing cuts and that consolidation will exacerbate the "chronic understaffing" at TV news operations nationwide.She blamed the cuts for decisions like WABC-TV/NEW YORK's bumping a story about the sentencing of ENRON and WORLDCOM executives for a story about a U2 book signing with footage provided by a publicist. MANGAN also noted ABC NEWS RADIO's production of several stories about the NATIONAL SPELLING BEE, an event televised by ABC television. WGA, WEST President PATRIC VERRONE noted that the number of companies employing writers has shrunk in the 20 years he has worked in the industry, and that six companies control most of the industry. "A diversity of contributors is essential to our nation's marketplace of ideas," VERRONE said, adding that media consolidation has led to homogenization of writing and "homogenization is good for milk but bad for ideas." He also took a shot at product placement requirements, jokingly doing a product-placement-like "plug" for VOSS water while brandishing the bottle in front of him.
R.E.M.'s Mills: "First, Do No Harm"
R.E.M. bassist MIKE MILLS criticized the 1996 Telecommunications Act and asked if the industry is better off today than 10 years ago, eliciting a "no" from some audience members. The result of consolidation, he said, is that radio in ATLANTA sounds like radio in any other market. He blamed national corporate playlists for preventing new music from reaching radio airwaves and for eliminating regional music from the air. "The FCC, " MILLS said, "should perhaps heed the Hippocratic Oath: 'First, do no harm.'" He suggested returning ownership caps to pre-1996 levels, but recognized that such a move is unlikely, adding that licensees should be required to play a certain amount of local artists "and not just in the middle of the night." MILLS also raised the payola issue as a topic for the Commission's considerations.
AFTRA President JOHN CONNOLLY, insisting that his union ("middle-class working people") and the public have "identical" interests, asserted, "The airwaves belong to the American people, and we believe it's time for them to take it back. That is our desire and our objective...." As an example of the negative effects of consolidation, CONNOLLY criticized the end of KZLA/LOS ANGELES' Country format for "another homogenized format."
Public comments at the USC portion of the hearing were uniformly critical of media ownership concentration, the lack of minority and female owners, and the inability of independent producers to get on the airwaves. State Senator GIL CEDILLO, who has been in conflict with talk hosts on LOS ANGELES stations over his support for illegal immigration, demanded that station owners be held accountable for "a climate of fear and bigotry." Artist DAN NAVARRO of LOWEN AND NAVARRO said that his livelihood "began to disappear" when consolidation hit in the mid-90's, criticizing the practice of radio stations not playing his music or refusing to report to trade charts that they were playing the songs. Another commenter charged that radio stations were taking pay-to-play money for their unregulated Internet streams and criticized STEVE HARVEY, TOM JOYNER, RYAN SEACREST, and BIG BOY for not publicizing the hearing. A producer claimed that she had a song recorded by Urban artists to get out the vote for Election Day and was refused airplay, and said that programmers told her that corporate directives came "from the highest level" to pull the song and claimed that the decision was political. Voiceover specialist and former radio personality BERNIE ALAN noted that he was fired years ago for a difference of opinion over a record but was able to find another job, but in today's industry, getting fired by one station means being unable to get a job at several other co-owned stations in the market.
KMZT and KKGO-A/LOS ANGELES owner SAUL LEVINE, given a last-second chance to speak, called the 1996 Telecommunications Act "a disaster" despite making his stations more valuable. He said CLEAR CHANNEL has made competing in the market more difficult, and charged that a CLEAR CHANNEL executive had tried to get him to drop the Adult Standards format on KKGO-A when it was competing in the format. He ridiculed CLEAR CHANNEL's contention that it needs more outlets in the market to survive, and noted that CLEAR CHANNEL was forced to divest stations in SAN DIEGO. "There's no public benefit to allowing them to have more stations," he said. "It'll drive me out of business."
Tribune GM Responds
At the evening session, held at EL SEGUNDO HIGH SCHOOL from 6:30-10- PT, VINCENT MALCOLM, VP/GM of TRIBUNE's KTLA,-TV, defended consolidation and cross-ownership, claiming that his station's relationship with the LOS ANGELES TIMES has resulted in stronger content. He cited the additional competition that broadcast stations like his are facing from cable and satellite channels, as well as the Internet and new media in calling for the cross-ownership rule to be waived. KNBC-TV GM PAULA MADISON, who also serves as GM of Spanish-language channels KVEA and KWHY, also touted the advantages of consolidation, citing increased competition from unregulated new media channels that tend to under-serve the local community, as well as the expense of producing a local newscast for a market the size of LOS ANGELES.
However, most of the hearing featured more criticism - often passionate and intense - of consolidated media. One speaker, who characterized CLEAR CHANNEL's roll-up of radio stations following the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act as "criminal," stated, "Owning a radio station, like driving a car, is a privilege, not a right. If I drive my car in a reckless manner, I don't get to keep my license simply because I own 1,200 cars." The comment drew a rousing response from the crowd, and typified the opinions expressed by many speakers.