Hollywood gave a uniform thumbs down Tuesday to any move by the Federal Communications Commission to loosen media ownership rules, contending the congloms already have too much power.
“The palpable result of consolidation on TV writers has been to reduce them to only those ideas acceptable to the corporate voice,” said WGA West prexy Patric Verrone during a three-hour hearing at USC. “Homogenization is good for milk but bad for ideas.”
Event, attended by about 400, was punctuated by enthusiastic applause breaks — particularly for the most pointed criticisms of the corporations.
Hearing before all five FCC commissioners was the first of six on revising the current rules, as periodically required by Congress. The commission dispensed with public hearings three years ago — under the leadership of Michael Powell — when it approved controversial plans to loosen ownership rules, which a federal court blocked in 2004.
Stephen J. Cannell opened the comment period by stressing that previous easing of fin-syn ownership rules has stripped indie producers of the ability to protect content since they can no longer move from one network to another. After the fin-syn rules were scrapped, he said, CBS refused to air a pilot he had produced with George C. Scott unless it could obtain Cannell’s financial interest.
Several speakers reminded the commissioners that the airwaves are owned by the public and not by the congloms. Marshall Herskovitz, speaking as president of the Producers Guild of America, asserted that the increased consolidation of media ownership is threatening freedom of speech and excluding newsworthy stories.
“The purpose of modern media conglomerates is to serve the bottom line,” he added. “News editors must now consider what news is the most profitable.”
Taylor Hackford, 3rd VP of the Directors Guild of America, and SAG first national VP Anne-Marie Johnson both asked the FCC to require 25% of all network primetime programming be produced by true indie programmers.
“Producers who are stakeholders and risk takers should be rewarded when their creative vision results in successful returns,” Johnson added.
She also told the FCC that the concentration of ownership has provoked concerns among SAG leaders as to labor coverage.
“If the Screen Actors Guild is involved in a labor dispute with the networks, and I certainly hope we aren’t, whose story will be told over the airwaves?” she asked. “Will the 6 o’clock news include our perspective, or that of those who have an economic stake in seeing us fail?”
REM bassist Mike Mills told the FCC that easing restrictions on ownership of radio stations has led to less musical diversity with nationalized playlists. “Radio in Atlanta sounds like radio in Denver, Nashville or any other city in America,” he added.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who voted for the 2003 change in the rules, gave little indication in opening remarks as to how he’ll steer the commission in the debate during what’s expected to be a yearlong process.
“I recognize many of the concerns expressed about increased consolidation and diversity,” he said. “But also critical to our review is exploring and understanding the competitive realities of the media marketplace. It is our task to ensure that our ownership rules take into account the competitive environment in which media companies operate while also ensuring localism and diversity.”
Democratic commissioner Michael Copps, who voted against the 2003 rules revamp, generated loud applause Tuesday by referring to it as a “near disaster” and reminding the crowd that the airwaves are public property.
“They belong to you and me and every person in this country, not to any corporation or conglomerate,” he added. “We allow broadcasters to use the airwaves — for free — in return for offering programs that serve the public interest.”
After brief introductory remarks by each commissioner, Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and Diane Watson spoke against easing ownership rules. Waters was particularly critical of the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of problems at King-Drew Medical Center, for which the paper won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year, and asserted Tribune Co. shouldn’t be granted an FCC waiver to own both the Times and KTLA in the Los Angeles market.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also spoke and pointed to Free Press watchdog group stats showing that minorities own only 3% of U.S. media outlets. “Too few people own too much media,” Jackson asserted.