FCC gets earful on ownership rules

Group overturns cable pacts with buildings

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday managed to stick it to cable operators, get an earful on media ownership rules and survive a stunt staged by a self-described “media whore” from activist org Code Pink — all in one meeting.

Following the FCC’s routine monthly meeting, during which the commission voted to invalidate exclusive service contracts between cable TV providers and owners of apartment and condo buildings, the majority of a 12-member panel of experts that included the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former NPR talker Bob Edwards alternately cautioned, warned, begged and cajoled the FCC not to loosen its media ownership restrictions.

About midway through testimony from experts, security guards tried to evict from the packed meeting room a young woman scantily clad like a housemaid and bearing tattoos reading “ABC,” “NBC,” etc., on her amply exposed flesh. Guards said she was “inappropriately attired.”

Resisting, the woman, who identified herself only as a “media whore,” was immediately surrounded by members of the antiwar activist group Code Pink, with whom she had apparently come into the meeting. Code Pink members whipped out cameras and camcorders as reporters then started congregating around the dust-up, which threatened to disrupt the meeting until an FCC public affairs official intervened and ordered the guards to let the woman stay.

Cablers might have wished that the woman had succeeded at least in disrupting the 5-0 vote voiding exclusive service contracts. Citing concerns about stifled competition and residents of so-called multiple dwelling units being “shackled” to a particular cable company, the commission decided not only to prohibit such contracts in the future, but also to render existing contracts unenforceable.

Cablers and building owners opposed the latter move, arguing the FCC lacked authority. Cablers also protested the new prohibition’s application to cable companies only and not to satellite TV companies, although the agency said it was now beginning to look at whether they too should be barred from entering into such exclusive contracts.

The FCC rejected cablers and building owners’ arguments that consumers do receive the benefit of competition, since cable companies vie with each other to land an exclusive contract with buildings with multiple units. Martin and other commissioners stressed the importance of allowing other, new competitors — like telephone companies providing video services — to enter the multiple-dwelling-unit market.

Despite the unanimous vote, commissioner Robert McDowell expressed concern that rendering existing contracts unenforceable exposed the FCC to a legal challenge.

Comcast confirmed such a possibility in a statement issued in response to the vote.

“Today’s action by the FCC is a blow to consumers in apartment buildings and condos who will lose the benefit of significant concessions building owners have been able to negotiate on their behalf. The net result is that many consumers are likely to wind up paying more for services if the FCC’s interference in the competitive marketplace stands.”

The National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., lobbying arm of the industry, hinted at the same, saying: “The FCC’s action to terminate existing contracts is an unprecedented, legally suspect step that could harm consumers and jeopardize the delivery of advanced services to low-income neighborhoods where other video providers have chosen not to offer service.”

Martin said the retroactive prohibition was “particularly important in light of rising cable rates.” He noted that “more than one quarter of all Americans live in apartment buildings,” especially minorities, who, he said, “will benefit in particular from today’s ruling.”

Linking increased consolidation with decreased diversity, Jackson criticized the FCC, charging that, “For too long, media policies have been made behind closed doors. This broken, corrupt process has meant that too few own too much at the expense of too many.”

Noting that women and minorities own just 7% of broadcast stations in the country, Jackson fumed: “This is a disgraceful level of inequality in one of the most important arenas or our economy and our democracy. It’s time to democratize our public airwaves, and we need to democratize the way the FCC does business.”

Edwards decried a negative effect of consolidation on local news. “The commission should not intensify the continuing evisceration of broadcast localism as a result of consolidation by adopting rules enabling even more consolidation,” he testified.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of watchdog group Media Access Project, pleaded similarly. Of some 2,000 broadcast stations in the U.S., he said, fewer than 800 originate any newscasts. The rest rely on syndicated feeds.

Dan Isett, government affairs director for the Parents Television Council, argued that consolidation has “led to the coarsening of media content.”

Speaking for the National Assn. of Broadcasters, exec veep Marcellus Alexander said localism is a priority for broadcasters because it is the main way broadcasters in the same market compete with each other for viewers.

Martin has said he would like a commission vote on revising media ownership rules by Dec. 18, but bipartisan members of Congress have urged him to take more time with the issue.