Media Ownership Hearing Gets Rowdy

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The battle over media consolidation began with hundreds of people, including actors, writers and musicians, imploring the Federal Communications Commission to prevent media conglomerates from growing even bigger.

Two FCC public hearings on the topic Tuesday resembled baseball playoff games with attendees whooping, clapping wildly and even booing as the five commissioners sat quietly and listened for more than seven hours.

Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, has said he backs a repeal of the rule that restricts a company from owning both a newspaper and broadcast station in the same city.

The so-called cross-ownership rule was repealed in 2003, when the commission also relaxed other rules restricting media growth. But the decision sparked a popular revolt, congressional action and a federal appeals court decision that resulted in that issue being sent back to the agency for reconsideration.

Tuesday’s hearings were the first of six to be held around the county before the FCC makes new rules, including deciding how many radio stations one company can own in a single market.

The more than 100 people who spoke Tuesday blamed media consolidation for increasing indecent programming, decreasing children’s and educational shows, stifling political debate and shutting out Hispanics, blacks, and other minorities from access to the airwaves.

“Large media conglomerates in the Los Angeles market do not serve children as well as locally owned stations,” Ted Lempert, president of the advocacy group Children Now, said at a hearing in El Segundo, Calif. Lempert cited a study showing that the number of children’s programs had decreased by more than 50 percent from 1998 to 2003.

Moctesuma Esparza, the chief executive of a movie theater chain, was one of several speakers who said minorities cannot get their voices heard in large media outlets and are still grossly underrepresented in prime time TV shows.

Several speakers supported lifting some restrictions, noting that advertisers were shifting their spending to the Internet and cable channels even as local TV stations find it more expensive to provide news coverage of their communities.

Paula Madison, president and general manager of KNBC in Los Angeles, noted that 90 percent of local content is provided by the largest media companies in the market, contrary to the “big media is bad media assumption.”

The relaxing of media ownership rules led to a flurry of mergers and acquisitions, resulting in such deals as AOL buying Time Warner Inc. and Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune, buying Times Mirror, which owned the Los Angeles Times, among other papers.

Many companies bought newspapers and TV stations in the same market hoping that the FCC would repeal cross ownership rules and hoping for cost savings and increased profits. But large media companies are questioning the rationale behind those deals, especially as newspapers continue to lose readers and advertisers.

“Locally owned newspapers, TV news and radio used to be the rule and not the exception,” FCC member Michael Copps, a Democrat, said Tuesday.

That issue resonated with many at the hearing, and they criticized the Chicago-based Tribune Co.’s ownership of the Times as well as local TV station KTLA.

“Without diversity in ownership and participation, our democracy is in danger,” U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat, said at the initial hearing held at the University of Southern California.

Tribune is hoping the FCC will eliminate the current ban on a single company owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market. In the meantime, the media company has asked the agency for a waiver so it can renew its broadcast license and retain ownership of both properties. The station license expires Dec. 1.

Waters said she would campaign against the waiver and recited a list of newspapers and television and radio stations owned by Tribune.

“If that’s not concentration, I don’t know what is,” she said to loud applause from the more than 500 people at the hearing.

At the El Segundo hearing, Vincent Malcolm, general manager at KTLA, said free broadcast stations are facing tough competition from cable and satellite TV companies, which do not face the same kind of ownership restrictions imposed on broadcasters.

“Our competitors have far deeper pockets than the Tribune Co.,” Malcolm said.

Tuesday’s hearing was dominated by entertainment industry workers including actors, directors and writers who joined in urging the FCC to allow independent producers greater access to vertically integrated media conglomerates that produce, own and distribute their own programs.

“Homogenization is good for milk, but bad for ideas,” said Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, west.

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