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Solons sound alarm on consolidation

FCC told to study mergers before easing regs

WASHINGTON — Top Capitol Hill solons frantic over media consolidation have delivered strict instructions to Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell: Make sure to study how massive melding of the biz has affected the breadth of programming and the ability of indie producers to get their shows on the air.

The pols want the examination completed by Christmas, putting pressure on a special FCC ownership task force to hurry along. Task force, appointed by Powell earlier this year, is considering the fate of several crucial ownership rules up for repeal, as well as consolidation in general.

Letter to Powell was signed by Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). Together, the lawmakers lead the two Senate committees with direct oversight of the media biz, the Commerce Committee and the Judiciary Committee.

“We feel this is an issue that urgently needs attention. Congress may certainly act before you have a chance to complete your study,” the May 23 letter said.

“Diversity of voices and opinions are vital to competition as well as the discourse of our democracy. Given the substantial, ongoing consolidation in the media industry and recent court decisions striking down rules that restrain this trend, we are extremely concerned that this competition and discourse is at risk,” letter stated.

Hollings and consumer advocates have been ringing the bells of alarm for months, saying Powell appears all too eager to weaken what ownership rules there are left on the agency’s books.

Committed to study

Powell has insisted that he has no intention of authorizing wholesale deregulation, and that he too is committed to a thorough and objective study of media concentration before striking down any rule.

Regs up for grabs include a national ownership rule blocking a broadcaster from reaching more than 30% of the national aud and another national cap blocking a cabler from reaching more than 35% of the national aud.

The Capitol Hill solons want the FCC task force to study the following:

  • The extent to which distributors (broadcast nets, cable nets and satcasters) are owned by congloms that produce programming

  • The extent to which distributors carry programming in which they have no economic interest

  • The extent to which distributors allow programming in which they have an economic interest to be carried by competing nets.

“In assessing the marketplace, please determine and, if possible, quantify whether, and to what degree, vertically integrated distributors favor their own programming and/or discriminate against independent programming with regard to carriage, compensation, channel position, marketing support and other factors that are critical to the success of new and/or competitive programmers,” the Hollings letter said.

“We are also interested in the extent to which the economics of independent programmers has changed in a way that undermines their viability as competitors,” letter said.