Media-consolidation debate to continue

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[Richmond, Va.] A Democratic Federal Communications Commissioner believes the FCC has not fully explored the potential impact of media consolidation, including its implications for the ad market, and unveiled a plan to devote part of his own public hearings to the topic.

Commissioner Michael Copps announced his plans as the FCC closed its only formal hearing into media-consolidation issues here Feb. 27. The proceeding had media companies trading scenarios with public-interest groups about consolidation's impact on political discourse, advertising, programming and competition before an audience that repeatedly and vocally sided with the public-interest groups.

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

more hearings

No advertisers or ad agencies testified, though media companies and public-interest groups argued about how changes in FCC media-ownership rules could affect the media, including the effect on advertisers and ad prices.

Mr. Copps, who has repeatedly expressed concern about FCC Chairman Michael Powell's push to loosen six key ownership rules, said the FCC needs more hearings to examine individual issues, including advertising, before voting.

"I want to explore [advertising] from a number of different perspectives," Mr. Copps said. "We are talking about the advertising needs of various communities and are they being given access to the kinds of products and services they are interested in? Or are advertisers single-mindedly focusing on that 18-to-34 affluent male? ... Do the small- and medium-sized enterprises have access to the consolidated media to advertise their products? Can they afford to do it?"

It wasn't immediately clear where or when the hearing would be held.

limit

Ownership rules limit how many TV and radio stations a single company can own in a market; how many households any one broadcast company can reach; the number of networks any one company can own; and bar newspapers from buying broadcast stations in a single market. At the hearing, media-company representatives called current rules outdated.

Jay Ireland, president of NBC Television Stations, said the current rule preventing any one company from reaching more than 35% of TV households in any market was threatening NBC's attempt to improve its Spanish-language Telemundo unit by limiting NBC's ability to add stations in additional markets.

Victor B. Miller, an analyst for Bear, Stearns & Co., said since consumers now have more choices, the more robust competition demands rules be relaxed.

Consumer groups, economists, unions, some minority media groups and Hollywood program producers warned that extensive consolidation in the radio industry already has had dire effects including less news content, less local programming and less diversity in program content.

"Deregulation of radio ownership has been a disaster for Richmond and many other communities in the country," said David Croteau, an associate professor of sociology and commerce, Virginia Commonwealth University.

L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, said consolidation had reduced standards for TV content to "sewage." Victoria Riskin, president of the Writer's Guild of America, and Jonathan Rintels, a TV producer and executive director for the Center for Creative Community, warned that increasing network control of shows will stifle programming diversity.

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