MEDIA CONSOLIDATION FOES LOCK HORNS AT FCC HEARING

Consumer Group Rails at 'Raw Sewage' Programming; Network Exec Bemoans Restrictions

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RICHMOND, Va. (AdAge.com) -- Media consolidation is producing "raw sewage" TV content, a consumer spokesman charged at a
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Federal Communications Commission hearing yesterday. A network executive, however, said that curbs on consolidation were what was really hurting TV content.

Those boisterous disagreements captured the tone of the day's event in the newly opened Greater Richmond Convention Center. This was the FCC's first and only planned public hearing on the contentious issue of media consolidation. The agency is reexamining virtually all its rules on media ownership.

Loud audience
Beating the drum for either side of the argument were a string of witnesses who appeared in a series of panels. Meanwhile, about 100 others in the audience made their sentiments known by frequently applauding whichever witnesses opposed proposed rule changes that favored further consolidation of the media business.

Durng the panels, L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, the consolidation was reducing standards for TV content, producing the "sewage" that now flows across network programming.

Victor B. Miller, an analyst for Bear, Stearns & Co., however, contended that pressure on the broadcast industry from competition as well as the sheer number of available programming sources now available to consumers demands that the current rules be relaxed.

Dampen public debate
Members of audience stole the spotlight during the public comments portion of the proceedings when they warned that consolidation had already made it harder to get anti-war and environmental advocacy advertisements placed. The speakers alleged that current the level of media ownership already jeopardize independent sources of news and dampen political discourse by concerned citizens. They sternly asked the FCC not to allow large media companies to extend their ownership grip further.

"You are the stewards of our voice," said Deborah Rannals, a local resident and former teacher. "I'm very mainstream and conservative, but it scares me to death that I might not have other [media] voices to listen to."

Impact on ad prices
Virginia Assemblyman Lionel Sprail said consolidation in his local radio market had already made it hard for him to get local issues discussed. He said he was also worried about the impact of media consolidation on ad prices.

On the other side, Jay Ireland, president of NBC Television Stations, contended the current cap preventing any one company from reaching more than 35% of TV households was threatening NBC's attempt to improve Spanish-language network Telemundo.

John F. Sturm, president-CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, said the ban on newspapers buying broadcast stations in their markets no longer made sense and allowing cross-ownership could benefit markets.

No ad execs present
Although no advertising executives spoke at the hearing, ad issues were repeatedly brought uo as several participants warned that control of the biggest part of the radio market by four media companies was making it difficult for independent companies to compete for ads.

The National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters called for the FCC to more carefully examine impacts of ad consolidation whenever one company would get more than 40% of revenue or two would get 60%.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat who has vocally questioned any easing of rules and has announced plans for several of his own hearings, questioned the effects consolidation would have on advertising during the hearing. He said afterward that he intended to devote one of his own hearings to advertising concerns.

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