Diller: Give pols free ads

NEW ORLEANS – Silver King and Home Shopping Network CEO Barry Diller called on the television industry to cover the broadcast advertising costs of all government candidates as a means to overhaul the current system of political contributions.

“I propose that we take sole responsibility for the cost of airing all political advertising messages for all government candidates and to use this lever as the impetus to abolish all forms of the current system of political contributions.”

Diller said the cost of such a move would probably be billions, not to mention trying to determine who is a viable candidate and how much ad time should be provided.

“Yes, it will be a bitch to get done, but so what,” Diller said. “Surely, if we can send a man to the moon much less figure out how to navigate the Internet, we can devise a fair and rational system better than the awful and degrading one we now have, especially if the fattest beneficiary gives up the loot.”

Such a move, he added, could also provide the industry with a needed quid pro quo in exchange for spectrum to introduce new channels through digital television.

The suggestion of completely free political ad time was part of a wide-ranging address Diller gave to the Assn. of Local Television Stations. Diller was introduced by Silver King executive VP Adam Ware. The luncheon also honored outgoing FCC commissioner James Quello and outgoing ALTV board chairman Kevin O’Brien.

After the luncheon, Diller said he has talked to large and small group owners about free ad time. National Assn. of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts said he was against such a proposal.

What’s the public interest?

Diller asked the industry to renew its relationship with the public interest. Diller also touched on viewer erosion, digital television, content ratings, political advertising and local programming. But he kept returning to the point that the broadcast television industry is at a crossroads and must decide whether to be passive or aggressive in the face of change.

“We always face the timeless choice when confronting tectonic shifts – will we be active or passive? – because with or without us change is coming and there will be no sympathy or support for an institution whose only defense is tradition,” Diller said.

New ideas, he added, are needed in all facets of the industry.

“Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a terrible basis for a business plan. Still we try repackaging, repurposing, regurgitation. How many copies of ‘Friends’ were we subjected to last season? Now, the TV rating of ‘XFR’ should be added for ‘X-Files’ Rip-off.”

To respond to today’s overly competitive environment, Diller said broadcasters will require “a new-found respect for the relationship between free broadcasting and ‘the public interest’ – a phrase I believe has become so empty of late that at best it merits lip service when invoked to defend against regulatory encroachment and at worst is thought to be an antiquated relic.”

Broadcasters, Diller emphasized, have been handed their means of distribution for free. “Cable, telcos and the satellite industries by comparison, each have huge infrastructure costs to bear just to get distribution. All we need to do is erect transmitters – a pittance. So let’s not pretend for one moment that this public trust is just too much government bureaucracy.”

At the same time, Diller said, the government’s efforts to enforce public interest guidelines are often misguided.

Forget content quotas

On content quotas, Diller said not only don’t they work, but they’re a cop-out for broadcasters and the government alike.

“How simple to assign an arbitrary number to one kind of important programming. It hinders rather than promotes creativity and our ability to nurture a diversity of voices,” he said.

“I have believed for some time that we as broadcasters should have the flexibility to choose our public interest fulfillment commitments from something like a Chinese menu. You may honor it with 12 hours of regional news, she with an educational channel and I with a little of everything.

“But to regulate that all of us must subscribe to the same minimalist expectations is counterproductive to the public’s interest.”

That plan, Diller said, would place more subjective responsibility in the hands of the FCC, which must then examine each station on the merits. “But that’s how it used to work and it did work, until the commission lost its bite in the deregulation of the toasterized ’80s.”

While Diller called for more public interest efforts from the industry, he was critical of efforts to limit media concentration as well as plans to auction digital spectrum rather than give it to broadcasters.

“It seems to make inherent sense that fewer owners will lead to less diversity of voices. But it is a false premise, and moreover, in the case of the telecommunications industries the opposite has proven true.” Concentration in cable, Diller said, has led to more programming options, not fewer.

“The cable industry points to the less simplistic reality that so-called concentration is not about owning everything, but rather having a stake often less than controlling in many things.

“And what are the terrible consequences? The Black Entertainment Network? It’s easy to have a field day criticizing Tele-Communications’ 40% stake in BET’s equity as an evil grab by Darth Vader instead of the true fact – that TCI CEO John Malone’s financial support to BET chairman Bob Johnson allowed the creation of a true and independent new voice. In broadcasting it wouldn’t even be possible.”

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