Media ownership regs open war of words

WASHINGTON — Weary of charges that he is conducting a secretive rewrite of media ownership rules, FCC topper Michael Powell fired back Thursday, accusing Democratic commissioner Michael Copps of failing to make himself available for discussions about the plans.

“We have reached out to every commissioner equally,” Powell told a group of reporters gathered at the FCC. “(Copps) has been more difficult to accommodate some of the briefings with his schedule. He has been committed to traveling to hearings.”

To industry observers, the message was rather blunt: Stop the finger-pointing and start negotiating the fine points if you want any say in the outcome.

Powell also brushed aside comments made by Copps earlier this week that he did not “have a clue” about what Powell plans to propose.

“There is no reason he shouldn’t have a clue… The clues are there for the taking.”

Copps rejected any notion that he had failed to show up for discussions or make himself available to Powell.

“This is serious business, not a game of Clue,” he said in a prepared response to the comments. “With only 32 days left before the most important vote the FCC will take this year, there is no excuse for not having a proposal to review.”

Copps also said “it defies credibility” to imply that he has been absent from the process.

“To my knowledge, I have never turned down a briefing on the proposals for changes to the media concentration rules. I learned (Wednesday) that the chief of the media bureau wants to meet with me next week. I accepted immediately, and I hope that he will bring a written draft proposal with him.”

Time is of the essence: Powell is expected to circulate a draft to the other commissioners May 12.

In recent weeks, Copps has helped organize and attend several hearings — the latest Monday at USC in Los Angeles — aimed at gathering public opinion about the massive overhaul of laws governing media mergers, skedded for an FCC vote June 2.

At these events, Copps and fellow Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein have blasted Powell for keeping them out of the loop and for adhering to a June 2 deadline to wrap up work on the issue despite numerous requests to delay the timeline and open the process to further public scrutiny.

Next week, Congress will have a chance to weigh in during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on media ownership, focused on pricing and competition in the video programming and distribution markets.

Those skedded to participate include: Cox Communications prexy James Robbins, Cablevision Systems Corp. chairman Charles Dolan, CableDirect prexy James Gleason, YES Network topper Leo Hindery and Consumers Union director Gene Kimmelman.

Democrats concerned about media monopolies fear that, with Powell at the helm, deregulation will rule the day and the media congloms will gain even more power.

Powell tried to tone down the alarmist rhetoric Thursday, noting he was not planning an elimination but a “modification” of the existing rules.

Copps bristles at the apparent inevitability of Powell’s plans. Even he predicts a party-line 3-2 split — with Powell lining up the votes of GOP commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin.

But Wednesday, Powell hinted that Adelstein may not reject his proposals entirely, praising him along with Martin and Abernathy and calling his input “quite helpful.”

Adelstein’s support for any part of the plan would surprise consumer groups and industry officials fighting what they view as an attempt to open the floodgates to more mega-mergers in the media world.

Numerous Hollywood artists and producers are worried that easing the rules will only increase the power of media congloms and reduce the diversity of programming.

Earlier this week, 34 prominent recording artists — from Neil Diamond and Jimmy Buffett to Tom Petty and the Indigo Girls — urged the commissioners to extend the deadline and let the recording industry voice its concerns.

Powell also defended the mathematical formula he has created to measure the number of media outlets in local markets around the country. The so-called “diversity index” has caused plenty of consternation this year with NAB prexy Edward Fritts and even Martin expressing concern that it will be too complicated and cumbersome to administer.

Industry execs and consumer groups are particularly annoyed that Powell has not disclosed the details of the measuring stick or explained exactly how it will function.

The Center for Digital Democracy, along with 285 academics, implored Powell to show his hand.

“We have grave doubts that any single measure can effectively analyze the complexities of the media marketplace in terms of its impact on journalism, citizen access to information and competition,” they wrote in a letter dated Thursday.

Those signing include professors Ted Glasser of Stanford University, Susan Douglas of the U. of Michigan and Joe Turow of the U. of Pennsylvania.

Powell dismissed any concern that the index will be too complicated to use and claimed to have cleared up some of the misperceptions about it among the commissioners.

“We’re all getting more comfortable with how it works,” he said. “I promise no consumer group is going to have to do any math to figure it out.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more