Networks, guilds split on FCC limit

Media consolidation would limit indie voices

Broadcasters and the talent guilds filed opposing comments with the Federal Communications Commission over whether media ownership restrictions should be relaxed.

The guilds, which argue that increasing media consolidation limits diverse and independent programming opportunities, asked the FCC to institute a rule requiring that “25% of network primetime broadcast programming must be supplied by a truly independent source.”

Independent source was defined as one “not directly or indirectly owned or controlled by or affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC, or their subsidiaries or sister companies.”

In its comments, the National Assn. of Broadcasters claimed that recent studies “generally demonstrate the lack of harm, and, indeed, the benefits that would be gained, from allowing local broadcasters to adopt more economically viable ownership structures.”

“In particular,” NAB continued, “the various studies show that the cross-ownership of broadcast stations with newspapers, and the common ownership of broadcast stations in the same market, promote the Commission’s traditional goals of competition, diversity and localism and serve the public interest.”

Cross-ownership has been a volatile issue in the debate over media ownership restrictions.

Filing jointly were the Screen Actors Guild; the Directors Guild of America; the Producers Guild of America; American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers & Directors; the Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild of America East.

Their comments focused on the alleged unfairness of increasing media consolidation against indie producers and how one of the reports cited by NAB supports that allegation.

“The viability of independent producers in today’s vertically integrated broadcast/production environment is not just difficult; it is virtually impossible,” the guilds argued.

“The discriminatory practices of dominant broadcast networks have acted as an anticompetitive barrier to entry: the dominant networks constructed a Hobson’s choice for any would-be independent producer whereby the networks take ownership or don’t take at all,” comments continued. “The resulting contraction in the number of content providers, and consolidation of even more power in the hands of the already dominant broadcast networks, constitutes an evisceration of the (FCC’s) goal of viewpoint diversity and cannot be remedied absent regulatory intervention.”

But arguing that relaxation would increase certain programming, NAB claimed, “The public interest benefits derived from common ownership specifically include … the offering of greater amounts of news programming, including local news. In light of such demonstrated benefits, the commission should act promptly to complete the statutorily mandated quadrennial review of the broadcast-only local ownership restrictions, and reform those rules to serve the public interest in light of competition.”

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin has said he wants the commission to vote on ownership before the end of the year, but several members of Congress — as well as presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — have cautioned Martin against moving too quickly on the issue.