Opponents want FCC changes scrutinized

Underscoring the split within the FCC over new media ownership rules, the two Democratic commissioners blasted FCC Chairman Michael Powell on Monday over his adherence to the June 2 deadline to wrap up work on the issue.

They charged that the Republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission appear to have already decided to go ahead with new rules giving media congloms more power. And they alleged their fellow commissioners are ignoring the impact of the changes.

“This is like going straight to the Super Bowl without a regular season,” declared commissioner Jonathan Adelstein by teleconference to a hearing of nearly 200 at USC. “This is a rush to judgment.”

Commissioner Michael Copps, who attended the event in person, said Powell’s self-imposed deadline means there has been inadequate public scrutiny of the implications of further FCC deregulation. He added that a 3-2 split — with Powell lining up the votes of commissioners Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy — is the likely outcome, heightening the probability of legal challenges.

“The stakes are enormous,” Copps added. “This is about everything we read, see and hear.”

Too late?

The hearing, held by the USC Center for Communications Law & Policy, may have come too late to have an impact. Even though consumer advocacy groups have joined Copps and Adelstein to call for more public scrutiny and hearings, they are swimming against the tide.

Insiders expect the FCC to usher in a new era of sweeping deregulation that will hand the media congloms even more power.

Up for grabs are an unprecedented number of regs that govern the broadcasting biz, including how many media outlets one company can own in the same market and a national cap barring one broadcaster from owning television stations that reach more than 35% of the national audience. Another rule up for review bars a broadcaster from owning a newspaper in the same major market.

Late last week, reports started leaking out of the FCC that Powell had enough support to relax the cap from 35% to 45%. That news came just as Belo Corp. broke ranks with its fellow affiliates and officially backed a proposal to raise the limit to 45% as well.

Belo’s decision came as a result of an unusually obvious deal it wants to strike with the FCC. In an April 17 letter filed to the agency, Belo chairman and CEO Robert Decherd said the company would support such a move as long as the FCC cracked down on the nets and allowed affiliates to pre-empt network programming.

Done deals await

Copps alluded to such manueverings in his comments Monday, saying he expects a rush of buying and selling once the commission approves new rules. “The deals are already done –they’re just waiting for the FCC,” he added.

The White House has strongly backed Powell’s position with Commerce Secretary Donald Evans contending that the review process has already resulted in input from 18,000 people or orgs and the commissioning of a dozen studies of the state of the media marketplace. Those studies contended that the rules were outdated and cited the proliferation of new cable and satcasting outlets.

But Copps and Adelstein criticized Powell for not disclosing the specifics of the proposed changes. Both commissioners admitted there is little public awareness of the possible changes and blasted the news media generally for not providing better coverage of the issue.

Adelstein, who attended Saturday’s hearing in San Francisco, said the desire to deregulate is coming only from the mega-congloms.

“At Saturday’s hearing, not one member of the public said they wanted to see more concentration of the news media,” he added. “We may be on the verge of creating a new Citizen Kane or a few of them.”

The end approaches

Monday’s hearing may be the last such event prior to the June 2 deadline. Copps said there have been attempts to organize similar hearings in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but nothing has been firmed up.

The FCC held a single public hearing on Feb. 27. Besides Monday’s event, other unofficial public hearings have been held in New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Burlington, Vt., and Durham, N.C.

Copps noted Powell will be required to issue a proposal by May 12, but stressed that it is likely to be a confidential document and not subject to any public scrutiny.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, chairman of the telecom task force of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, told the hearing that easing ownership regs will hamper efforts toward diversity. “It’s not just a matter of getting big — it’s a matter of a few white males getting very big,” he added.

Becerra, D-Los Angeles, also warned that he and his Democratic colleagues would want to reexamine the FCC’s charter if the June 2 vote goes through without a delay.

More against

Monday’s hearing was weighted heavily toward anti-deregulatory forces, although ABC exec Mark Pedowitz and Viacom VP Martin Franks also spoke. Pedowitz asserted that the government’s efforts so far to deregulate TV have succeeded, with FCC figures showing the average cable system delivering 82.5 channels.

“Proponents of re-regulation simply cannot make the case that consumers had greater choice in the ‘Golden Age’ of TV,” he added.

Franks narrowed his comments to attacking a proposal that 25% of TV programming be set aside for independent producers, calling it an attempt to revive the financial-syndication rules that were eliminated a decade ago. But David Kissinger, prexy of Universal Television Prods., indicated he was on the fence about the proposal after admitting that deregulation has largely eradicated indie TV producers.

Other speakers stressed the notion that the massive consolidation among the half-dozen mega-congloms poses a threat to creativity for all but a very few successful exec producers such as David Kelley and Dick Wolf.

“Corporations treat public airwaves as a corporate asset for their benefit,” said producer and USC professor Jerry Isenberg. “What we’re getting is a destructive environment for creative people.”

UCLA professor Darnell Hunt said his studies show that minorities are under-represented as actors, writers and directors in primetime. “Things are bad in primetime and more consolidation will make only make it worse,” he added.

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