Hiring picture fuzzy with new FCC chair

With GOP in power, it's a new ball game for TV industry

William Kennard only had four days to go as chair of the Federal Communications Commission when he got the devastating news: An appeals court had demolished FCC rules holding broadcasters accountable for minority hiring — or the lack thereof — on and off camera.

Kennard, the first African-American to lead the FCC, had secured passage of the regs in 1998. He was convinced that left to their own devices, some broadcasters might shrug off their public duty to reach out to all Americans. There’s no question that the TV industry has made progress, but the ride has been bumpy.

When it comes to the average citizen — and especially the young — there is no more influential or important medium than TV, Kennard told Daily Variety in a recent interview. If there are a lack of minorities and women, the world can be seen as us vs. them, worse still if minorities and women are plugged into stereotypical roles.

“There’s a troubling disconnect,” says Kennard, who stepped down as FCC topper Jan. 19. “Creating a diverse work force takes constant diligence. There is broad slippage. Some have taken their eye off the ball.”

With Kennard and his Democratic pals at the White House ousted by the GOP, it’s a new ball game for the TV industry. Broadcasters are hopeful that a Republican administration will declare a regulation cease-fire, and get off their backs on such issues as affirmative action. The TV industry says it can — and is — handling the problem on its own

NAACP prexy-CEO Kweisi Mfume says there’s no question that Kennard will be missed in his capacity as FCC chair.

“Bill Kennard was a fighter. His position was that you can do both, both regulate and at the same time advocate. He walked a narrow path. And he certainly helped to put pressure on pressure points,” Mfume says.

Kennard or no Kennard, broadcasters could soon be hit where it hits most — the almighty advertising dollar.

Within days of the court ruling striking down the FCC regs, Mfume announced his org could vote in June to boycott one of the four major nets if progress isn’t made, and fast.

There’s no shortage of recent data backing up the claim that minorities and women are fading from view in the TV industry.

On the same day that the FCC rules were declared unconstitutional, the U.S. Commerce Dept. released a report showing that the number of TV stations owned by minorities has dropped to the lowest level in more than a decade. Similarly, a recent FCC study showed that minorities and women are losing precious ground.

Mfume says a boycott is the last resort, and just one of several options being considered by the NAACP.

Other possible avenues include:

  • Asking Congress to reinstate certain fin syn regulations, which were overturned by Congress in 1995. Lifting of regs allowed networks to own, produce and distribute TV programs.

    Mfume said the resulting consolidation of the industry is freezing out indies, which in turn freezes out minorities. He suggests that Congress might resurrect fin syn, in so much as a safe harbor, requiring nets to buy a certain amount of product coming from minority- and women-owned shops.

    “Networks might readily agree to do this upfront, rather than to revisit fin syn,” Mfume says.

  • Another plan of attack would be to borrow from the FCC requirement that networks provide three hours of children’s primetime programming a week. Congress could pass a law extending a similar requirement to minority fare.

“Now that the precedent has been set, that same kind of argument has legitimacy for minority programming. Networks would be hard pressed to say they are two different issues, because both populations are underserved,” Mfume says.

Before the NAACP launches any assault, Mfume will first make the rounds in Washington, airing his grievances at the White House and the FCC. By in large, Mfume says the verdict is out on Kennard’s successor, Michael Powell.

Like Kennard, Powell is African-American, but as a Republican, he is widely predicted to take a more hands-off approach when it comes to social issues such as affirmative action.

While previously serving as an FCC commissioner, Powell said there is no question that equal opportunity is achieved only when minorities and women are given an equal chance to develop requisite skills. To that degree, limited government involvement may be appropriate — with limited underscored.

“As soon as I can, I’m going to sit down with Mr. Powell and give him a sense where this association is. I know that his background is one of favoring deregulation and letting the industry find its own water level,” Mfume says. “I don’t have a problem with that, but I do want him to understand why deregulation can hurt in certain areas. I want him to understand why he must use the bully pulpit.”

Kennard also raised the possibility that the FCC may revisit, and perhaps refashion, the rules struck down by the court.

And while he himself may be gone from public life, Kennard has no intention of giving up the fight. His arsenal: a Rolodex that reads like a who’s who of entertainment-media giants and influential Washington types. The venue? The Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank.

In his new gig, Kennard will focus on communications policies, such as diversity in the TV industry.

“I’ve talked to many executives in the broadcasting industry and these are folks that want to do the right thing. They want to build successful companies, but they also want to have a positive impact on society,” Kennard says. “A lot of this comes down to education, corporate responsibility and a recognition that this industry has a huge impact. This isn’t a widget industry.”

Considering the weight of the First Amendment, Kennard says it’s never appropriate for the government to sign off on scripts, programming is an issue between consumers and the broadcast industry. Thus, any hint of a boycott is impetus for broadcasters to address the diversity issue.

“Any advertising medium has to be sensitive to wishes of consumers and if there is a huge block of consumers who aren’t being served well by the product, then certainly their voices should be heard,” Kennard says.

When the NAACP raised the boycott issue last year, broadcasters scrambled to put forth various proposals to increase diversity.

“I commend Kweisi Mfume for putting this issue at the top of the national agenda for television, cause I think as a result of these discussions, there have been changes within the executive suites of the networks,” Kennard says.

Mfume says, however, the industry hasn’t always lived up to its side of the bargain. Thus, the NAACP board of directors will vote whether to launch a boycott at its June meeting.

“Advertisers have more power than they are willing to admit. It is the advertising dollar at the end of the day that determines who makes how much and how,” Mfume says. “They have the power to bring about the end of a program. They have that ability if they speak out and insist that there is greater diversity.”

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