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Hail to the chief?

Biz braces for post-election direction

NEW YORK — On a purely visceral level, showbiz execs would likely embrace a victory by John Kerry in today’s presidential election. After all, President Bush has all but spurned pop culture, seemingly proud of the fact that he doesn’t read the papers, watch TV or screen movies in the White House theater.

Kerry, on the other hand, has been the darling of the Hollywood fund-raising circuit and can boast more than a few top studio exec phone numbers.

“The support this year has been enormous for Kerry,” one studio exec said. “We’ve all known him for a long time. There’s been no relationship with Bush. It’s obviously good to be able to pick up the phone to Washington if you have a problem, be it legislative or political, and find a sympathetic ear.”

Still, a win for Kerry may not be the kind of victory showbiz congloms had in mind — particularly on the crucial issue of further media consolidation.

That’s probably why Viacom topper Sumner Redstone, who is a registered Democrat, said publicly that Bush’s re-election would be the best thing for his company. It’s the GOP, not the Democratic Party, that is backing a major rollback of media ownership laws.

Kerry, on the other hand, has said on the campaign trail that he wants to curb further consolidation.

A change would also likely mean a setback for such station groups as Hearst, Belo and Media General that want to own multiple stations or TV-newspaper combos in single markets.

Media companies, once confident that Republican control of Congress and the White House would be enough to get rules relaxed, now aren’t so sure. A federal court blocked a liberalization of the rules in 2003 and its fate remains uncertain.

“The most significant policy change would be the change in attitude toward consolidation,” said Legg Mason analyst and former FCC staffer Blair Levin.

Recent moves by broadcasters have had a galvanizing effect on anti-consolidation forces. Sinclair Broadcasting aired parts of an anti-Kerry documentary and Pappas Broadcasting gave hundreds of thousands in free advertising to Republican candidates just weeks before the election.

“These companies came in and reminded everyone why they cared so much about media consolidation in the first place,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy at Consumers Union.

Counterintuitive politics

Partisan divide — or lack thereof — on media issues is often counter-intuitive.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which ushered in the great wave of media consolidation, was enacted during the Clinton presidency.

And anti-deregulation forces have plenty of Republican allies who are suspicious of consolidation.

One TV exec said that even on the issue of media concentration, it could be a toss-up between Kerry and Bush.

“I don’t know that there are any friends out there for making the media bigger. It’s just a tough sell,” exec said.

Many of the other key business issues facing the media industry straddle party lines, meaning the potential differences between a Kerry and Bush administration are nuanced.

It was Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps, for example, who led the charge against indecency on the airwaves — not Republican FCC chair Michael Powell.

And Powell, for all his deregulatory bona fides, has been largely ineffectual in actually getting any ownership rules changed.

Piracy bipartisan issue

As for piracy, the huge and growing concern for movie studios, it’s a bipartisan issue, with both parties expressing concern, if not proffering solutions, for copyright infringement.

Both parties also have to respond to powerful wings clamoring for tighter rules and higher fines for indecency on the airwaves, in movies and in song lyrics.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks put many media biz concerns on the back burner in Washington, where they still remain.

Bush or Kerry will set the tone of the next four years in tapping the next chair of the FCC. Powell is expected to bow out next year anyway, but he could leave sooner if Kerry is elected.

But if Kerry wins and the Senate and House remain in Republican control, GOP lawmakers could easily block or delay any FCC appointments, rendering the commission ineffective for months.

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