Hollywood bashes media consolidation

Big media companies targeted in testimony during FCC hearings on media ownership.

Even with new distribution channels such as the Internet, too much media consolidation is hurting the diversity of news and entertainment, many representatives of those industries told the Federal Communications Commission in a public hearing Tuesday.

Television producers, musicians, actors and writers made that pronouncement during testimony in Los Angeles in the first of six public hearings being held across the country. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and all five commissioners traveled to California for two hearings in which they asked for comment from independent media producers, creative artists and the media conglomerates themselves.

The first hearing, held at University of Southern California's Davidson Conference Center in Los Angeles, focused exclusively on whether consolidation in the media has hurting the diversity of programming that Americans see and hear on the open airwaves. The commission heard from notable people in the industry such as Mike Mills, bassist for the rock band R.E.M., Stephen Cannell, producer of the 1970s detective show "Rockford Files," and actress Anne-Marie Johnson, who has appeared in shows such as "The X-Files," "JAG" and "Dharma & Greg."

Of the producers and artists who testified in this first panel, the resounding answer to that question was a big "yes."

Big media companies have argued that they need more freedom to consolidate their businesses in an increasingly competitive market. Meanwhile consumer groups, civil rights leaders, independent content producers, journalists, and other players in media and entertainment argue that consolidation is killing creativity and diversity.

"Homogenization is good for milk," said Patric Verrone, president of Writers Guild of America, West. "But it's bad for ideas."

Panelists tried to deflect arguments that have been made in the past that new technology such as the Internet will provide an avenue for more diverse programming.

"Don't let the exploding Internet divert attention from the issue of prime-time network TV," said Taylor Hackford, third vice president for the Directors Guild of America. "Network TV is still the most watched TV, and its advertising is still the primary source of revenue for networks."

Hackford went on to say that the amount of independently produced television shows has been shrinking during the last decade as the major television networks have consolidated with media production houses. Independent producers have brought to life many characters and television shows that Americans have come to love, such as "Seinfeld," "Little House on the Prairie," "The Cosby Show" and "The Waltons."

He said that in 1993, about 66 percent of network television programs came from independent producers, while the remaining 44 percent were produced by the networks. Thirteen years later in 2006, independent producers account for only 22 percent of television shows aired on the network, and 76 percent of programming comes from the networks, he said.

Hackford proposed that the FCC mandate that each of the four major networks--ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox--program their lineups with at least 25 percent independently produced programming.

The FCC hearings come two years after the commission, then under the leadership of Chairman Michael Powell, voted 3-2 to loosen many of the restrictions limiting media ownership.

The decision, which had been made with little public input, sparked more than 3 million public comments to the FCC in opposition to the plan. Congress got involved and lawsuits were filed. A federal appeals court struck down many of the rules and asked the commission to go back and reconsider them.

Now the commission is trying to do just that. But this time Chairman Martin--under pressure from commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, both Democrats who opposed the new rules in 2003--is making an effort to allow concerned citizens to express their opinions on the subject.

"The commission is looking for input on our rules and how they impact the three core goals they are intended to further: competition, diversity and localism," Martin said in his opening statement. "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."

In addition to the question of whether networks are limiting the diversity of TV programs that Americans view on broadcast networks, there are also a slew of other issues that must be addressed with regard to the rule making.

For example, the FCC must decide whether media conglomerates that own newspapers should be allowed to also own TV and radio stations in the same market. That question is currently prominent in the minds of people in Los Angeles, where the Chicago-based Tribune Co. owns both the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV, Channel 5. Tribune has already filed a waiver with the FCC that would allow it to renew its broadcast license and retain ownership of both properties.

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