A call for more owners

H'wood players to FCC: TV hurt by consolidation

Size matters, and smaller is better.

A panel of Hollywood's creative elite delivered that message to an itinerant FCC on Tuesday in the first of a series of regional hearings tied to the commission's quadrennial review of media-ownership regulations. The collective lesson of media deregulation has been that media mass equals less diversity when it comes to programming, they said.

"We join the unanimous chorus of voices in Hollywood in affirming that media ownership has consolidated into far too few hands," WGA West president Patric Verrone testified at the hearing, held on the USC campus in Los Angeles, where all five commissioners attended.

Added Verrone: "Fifteen years ago, less than a third of writing employment was controlled by (media conglomerates). Today, they control over 80% of it."

The regional hearings -- another one was held locally Tuesday night in nearby El Segundo -- are designed to inform the FCC on the effects of past media policy. The commission has limited independent authority to change the relevant regs, which Congress has set to allow individual corporations to own TV stations reaching 39.5% of the nation's viewers.

That's a higher cap than had been allowed under previous guidelines, and it also was accompanied by looser limits on having broadcast stations and newspapers under one corporate umbrella. Legacies of an FCC led by former chairman Michael Powell, the commission's current chairman -- Kevin Martin, a Republican -- said the regional hearings will attempt to gauge how current ownership rules have affected media competition, diversity and localism.

But the Hollywood contingent gave low marks on all counts. Much of the discussion centered on the 1993 abrogation of the FCC's one-time Financial Interests and Syndication Rules, or FinSyn, which had greatly limited the broadcast networks' involvement in TV production.

"In the 1992-93 season, 66% of network primetime television was created by independent producers, with the networks accounting for the remaining 34%," said director Taylor Hackford, third vp at the DGA. "Today, in the 2006-07 season, the independents' share has fallen to 24%, while the networks and their affiliates own and control 76% of primetime television."

He added that much of the indie fare involves reality TV and game shows. And the number of independent suppliers has slipped from 23 in the early '90s to two currently -- Sony and Warner Bros., which are "part of media conglomerates that do not resemble the strong independent companies that once existed," Hackford said.

Stephen J. Cannell, representing the Caucus of Television Producers, Writers and Directors, was the first of several panelists to suggest that network control of primetime programming has stifled producer creativity. Cannell detailed how wrong-headed network script and casting demands almost killed "The Rockford Files" and "The Commish" in development until he moved the projects to a rival network, something that's impossible with network-owned productions.

"The ability to move the program is what protected its content," Cannell said.

SAG first national vp Anne-Marie Johnson recounted a similar story about producer Marcy Carsey having to bolt ABC for NBC with "The Cosby Show."

"When the show was originally pitched to ABC, the network executives wanted Bill Cosby's character to be a Vegas entertainer rather than a doctor," Johnson said.

She called for new regulations requiring that a portion of primetime programming be produced by independent suppliers.

Verrone said the loss from media concentration isn't limited to Hollywood professionals.

"The ideas that are the vital raw material of our country's democratic process are mostly funneled through these few corporations," he said. "As a result, the free speech of Americans on all sides of the political debate are stifled."

Added Producers Guild of America president Marshall Hers-kovitz: "The dissemination of information is not even the primary goal of these corporations. The purpose of the modern media conglomerate is to serve the bottom line."

As for his constituency of writers, Verrone said: "The palpable result of consolidation on TV writers has been to reduce them to only those ideas acceptable to the corporate voice. Homogenization is good for milk but bad for ideas."

WGA East executive director Mona Mangan said a looser regulatory environment also has hurt TV news programming, including a "pervasive" pattern of job eliminations and a substantial loss in the quality of local news coverage.

AFTRA national president John Connolly said his membership has been hurt by media consolidation in several professional areas, including radio broadcasting.

"Radio announcers told us how consolidation has resulted in catastrophic job loss and salary compression because when hundreds of stations are commonly owned, the most cost-effective way to program those stations is by voice-tracking or automating," Connolly said.

R.E.M. bass player Mike Mills -- representing the Recording Artists Coalition and attracting perhaps the afternoon's only actual squeals of support from the audience -- went further.

"While payola is an insidious practice, media consolidation arguably has made it worse," Mills said.

The panel testimony was preceded and followed by remarks by political and civic leaders as well as public comment. Among the highlights:

-- Rev. Jesse Jackson suggested the concentration of news programming into fewer corporate hands has stifled the level of criticism of the Iraq War.

-- U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, said the Tribune Co. should be forced to sell KTLA-TV or the Los Angeles Times and suggested the concentration of media ownership in the market had prevented a contrary point of view from surfacing when the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning series on medical abuses forced cuts at a local emergency room.

-- Reps of the free-market advocacy group FreedomWorks, chaired by former congressman Dick Armey, distributed statements urging fewer controls on media ownership in the broadband age.

"The government can move to increase competition and choice by removing archaic laws that are out of step with the fundamental changes occurring in the marketplace," Armey said.

But the overwhelming number of those providing testimony to the commission were in favor of restoring more controls over media ownership.

Even Tim Winter of the Parents Television Council joined the Hollywood contingent in decrying "the harmful effect of media consolidation."

And Ion Media Networks CEO Brandon Burgess added a request for sustained and substantial must-carry provisions for small-fry TV distributors like Ion.