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NATPE Conference Coverage


Congressman Likens Media Consolidation to Free Speech

Published on .

NEW ORLEANS (AdAge.com) -- Taking the stage on his home turf, Louisiana Congressman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin yesterday accepted a NATPE Chairman's Award
Photo: AP
Congressman Billy Tauzin said he is 'appalled' at FCC efforts.
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and lashed out at the Federal Communications Commission for its part in the current struggle over media deregulation.

"It still appalls me that we have a big agency that regulates speech in America," the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce told the annual conference of the National Association of Television Program Executives.

'Threatens free speech'
"You've got to let the people speak and you've got to protect them from a government controlling speech," he said. "So all these questions about ownership, competition, about the way in which communications is organized, I start from the proposition that there should be minimum control, regulation of all those things. ... [The FCC] threatens free speech every day when it over-regulates."

The comments came in a spirited question and answer session with Chris Matthews, star of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, and appeared to be at odds with the general sentiment elsewhere around the room.

For instance, NATPE President-CEO Bruce Johansen sounded a very different note when he told the same audience, "I am inspired by many in our industry who have mobilized for a fight against efforts to relax long-standing limits on media ownership in the U.S. This coalition includes directors, producers, actors and writers who share a common concern that any move by the FCC to allow further consolidation in the TV business could greatly reduce jobs and stifle creativity. This will be one of the great issues that we'll be facing over the next few months."

Antitrust issue
After his speech, Mr. Tauzin spoke to AdAge.com and explained that his position is that deregulation is an antitrust issue. "What I try to do is separate the issues. Is it there to regulate speech or for another reason, to regulate the commercial aspects of competition?" he asked. "Maybe that's better handled in a review by the Justice Department or by the Federal Trade Commission in some circumstances. You not only have antitrust laws in play here, you have laws that affect dominant players who may not be monopolists but nevertheless may dominate and therefore inappropriately affect the marketplace. The FTC can come in and regulate that on an economic level."

As part of the program, Rep. Tauzin was honored with the NATPE Chairman's Award from the outgoing chairman, Tony Vinciquerra, who is president of Fox Networks Group. The award was for helping the organization grow by promoting pro-industry concerns -- such as copyright protections for intellectual properties.

But as the award was being presented, the lights in the convention center ballroom suddenly went out, darkening the stage.

"What, didn't we pay our bills?" quipped Mr. Vinciquerra.

Tough times
It turned out to be a power failure, quickly corrected, but the faux pas was symptomatic of the state of this year's gathering of syndication producers and broadcast and station executives, an organization that is going through tough times.

The conference, celebrating its 40th year, has been, in past years, a bright, fulsome marketplace where cocky independent distributors trotted out new shows on bustling showroom floors, filled with station and broadcast executives and advertisers searching for the next new thing.

This year the marketplace is dim, the single showroom floor ghostly empty and the ballroom, where the opening address took place, filled with empty seats. And there were just a handful of advertising executives in attendance: Jon Mandel, co-CEO of Grey Global Group's MediaCom, and immediate past chairman of NATPE; Bill Cella, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global; Robert Riesenberg, executive vice president and director of Interpublic's Magna Global Entertainment; and Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president and director of broadcast research at Interpublic's Initiative Media North America.

Consolidation impact
NATPE is in transition. Following the '90s boom, there has been a loss of advertising dollars supporting new programming, and the consolidation of the media industry through deregulation has made it more feasible and efficient for media companies to create their own programming in-house or through exclusive deals with independents.

The NATPE market has already been sold. There is nothing here in New Orleans to buy, other than remnants, or very marginal and questionable offerings like Tartan TV, a slate of programs about Scottish culture (what some cynical attendees have dubbed the "Men in Quilts" show) and a sex advice chat program that takes place in a real-life Australian brothel.

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