Media Cliff notes for Congress

BEFORE TRYING TO CHANGE A CAR transmission, the average person would want to learn something about how the machinery worked.

Not so with Congress, which often seems unencumbered by niggling pangs of curiosity before weighing in on media matters. That’s why whenever the subject arises, I hope someone distracts legislators with something bright and shiny — say, an amendment against flag burning.

Among front-burner media issues, a coalition has urged Congress to tackle a la carte cable service — not because consumers are paying too much for “SpongeBob SquarePants,” but because these groups object to underwriting the sweaty shenanigans on FX’s “Nip/Tuck” or MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), meanwhile, introduced legislation to establish oversight of TV ratings, swayed by Fox’s masterful Geppetto act contending that Nielsen’s new people-meter technology damages representation of minorities.

Not to be outdone, videogames are becoming Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s family-values issue as she runs toward the political center, in much the way her husband advocated TV content ratings.

Finally, the Federal Communications Commission is wrestling with how to revise media-ownership rules, after agreed-to changes in 2003 were rejected by a federal appellate court 13 months ago.

Forget who wins or loses. The central element here is that Washington’s disconnect from popular culture and limited grasp of how the entertainment industry functions undermines logical rule-making.

So let’s cut through the B.S., identify some steppingstones through these regulatory minefields and let the chips, lobbyists and lawyers fall where they may.

  • On its face, a la carte cable would appear to make a world of sense from a consumer perspective, ignoring the politics. Let Morality in Media members reject channels that offend them, so long as I can skip country music and NASCAR.

The problem is that Congress’s General Accounting Office has sided with cable interests, determining that a la carte might actually reduce consumer choice (in part by making weaker channels insolvent) and ultimately increase costs, however counterintuitive that might sound.

If someone can demonstrate the public will benefit financially, it’s a no-brainer; everyone likes paying less. That means the pro-a la carte campaign has a better chance if Consumers Union leads the fight than Concerned Women for America, whose polarizing agenda also includes hard-right stances on abortion and gay rights.

As with most regulation, it’s also wise to beware unintended consequences, lest those promoting wholesome “family friendly” channels cause them to fall by the wayside while porn continues to thrive.

  • Congressmen confused by the TV ratings shouldn’t feel too badly; most people in Hollywood don’t understand them either.

Essentially, though, minority activists and lawmakers have been drawn into an intramural fracas — a little like breaking up a fight between brothers only to have the warring siblings plead not to interfere.

Broadcasters and media buyers periodically gripe about Nielsen to keep the ratings monopoly on its toes. They know past threats of launching an expensive alternative proved futile and that it’s going to become more difficult to accurately measure new technologies, meaning they must pressure Nielsen to adapt.

They also know, as leading advertising reps stated in a letter to Congress, that “adding an unnecessary layer of oversight” to this dense thicket will only “hinder television’s ability to manage change.”

Burns’ interest remains puzzling, by the way, since there are not only few minorities in his home state but relatively few TVs. The largest city, Billings, ranks No. 170 out of 211 designated U.S. market areas, and every viewer in Glendive (No. 211) would fit in Sumner Redstone’s back yard.

  • The videogame showdown, frankly, is a waste of time. If effective regulation boils down to a battle of wits between “Grand Theft Auto” players and senators who haven’t seen a movie since “Grand Hotel,” the smart money’s on the tech-savvy fans.

  • Media ownership rules, by contrast, virtually defy simplicity and clarity, but before the FCC gets involved again, here are some key points to consider:

A) Five companies (Time Warner, Fox, Disney, Viacom, NBC Universal) are producing 80% of primetime broadcast series for the coming TV season. Yes, there are more programming options, but all roads lead to what top agent Robert Broder has called “the five families.”

B) A few independents, such as “Survivor’s” Mark Burnett, are thriving almost entirely in so-called reality TV. At the same time, with Carsey-Werner bailing out of scripted programs, the last significant indie in that sphere has left the building.

C) Don’t be fooled by the Viacom breakup. Being bigger, if not always better, is still an advantage.

Like I said, these are complicated mechanisms. So before anyone tinkers around under the hood, remember that there’s a wide gap between saying “There ought to be a law” and actually crafting one that won’t do more harm than good.

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