The FCC held a hearing on media consolidation on Monday March 31 at the Duke University Law School. The agenda for the meeting is online at: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-232533A1.pdf
Also, there is a public comment facility soliciting input from the public on this and a variety of other issues: http://gullfoss2.fcc.gov/ecfs/Upload/
These are my notes from the hearing. They're fairly detailed, but not at all complete. Errors, bias, omission, etc. are my fault. This is long (600 lines), but it was a full afternoon's presentations. If you're in a rush, read Copps' comments and skip down to Tift Merritt.
Copps thanked everyone for showing up, and expressed optimism that people outside the DC beltway could have an impact during the hearing process. He expressed regret that the other FCC commissioners and other people in DC did not attend, but hope they would pay attention to the hearing's transcript.
Overview of the FCC's role in media. He said the mandate from the supreme court is to provide:
in the media. He also mentioned that the important questions about media and media ownership are difficult to answer. Meanwhile, the FCC is trying to make historic decisions - that will impact the whole future of media - by June 2. A very quick timeline.
Adelstein said that changing rules can have a very rapid impact on the face of media, citing the telecom act of 1996. He gave a review of consolidation in radio, citing it as the rapid change that can result from changes in rules, and said that radio, in particular, is an early indicator of trends in other media.
So far, about 8000 comments were received. While this is a lot, it is also a very small proportion of the population. Adelstein pointed out that allowing companies to merge and consolidate is a one-way process, so we need to prevent it - if appropriate - before letting it happen.
Price mentioned that Copps was the organizing force behind today's hearing, and that the hearing was important. He expressed regret that Commissioner Michael Powell was not present (though he was invited).
Price offered his opinion that the sense of "community" is what is at stake in broadcast media ownership. He doesn't think that 200 channels of cable is enough. He's critical of consolidation in radio, and concerned the same thing might happen to TV. He's clearly critical of ClearChannel's political use of their airwaves for organizing pro-war rallies (applause). He pointed out the fear of local affiliate owners of TV stations to buck policies and programming of the higher-level corporate owners.
He restated the value of hearing from experts and opinions outside of the Washington beltway. He said he is here to urge the FCC to protect the voice of local broadcasters. He wants local stations to control local programming.
Burr talked about the 35% rule that prevents too much ownership. He said that contrary to the expressed will of congress, consolidated ownership was impairing the power of local citizens to influence the affairs and values of their community due to lack of access to local media (aka lack of presence of local media).
He wants the 35% rule to stay, and is critical of network-owned local stations. He likes independent stations for their ability to pursue localism, bucking the corporate-dominated centrally-managed stations.
Burr pointed out that congress explicitly authorized thousands of local stations, and that this vast set of broadcasters is the envy of the world for the freedom from government restraint. He portrayed all these local stations as bring critical to providing a local voice, and characterized that as essential to democracy.
He gave the example of "who wants to marry a millionaire." He said such programming demeans community values and fundamental decency. Such lowest-common-denominator programming has questionable values, demeans marriage, and may be indecent. He congratulated the ability of local affiliates to reject network programming they find objectionable. Burr said that government censorship is a non-issue if the 35% rule is in play, because local broadcasters will make decisions about programming in accord with local values.
Burr also had some things to say about public broadcasting (seeming to focus on PBS/NPR affiliates in particular). He was very critical of centralization in such public broadcasting, and said that Congress would start to scrutinize their broadcast licenses more carefully for whether they are meeting their constituents needs.
He urged expansion and enhancement of localism. He said that as an author of the 1996 Telecom Act, he knew that protection of local control of media, particularly the 35% rule, is unambiguously valued by congress. He said that for the FCC to bypass localism would put them at peril of congressional intervention.
Copps introduced the panel. Each would get some time to present their views, then there would be some Q&A.
He talked about the presence of government regulations and deregulation. He said that deregulation, resulting in consolidation, results in fewer choices for consumers. More choices and less consolidation of media ownership increases consumer choices.
He also pointed out that prices for advertisers are more favorable without more consolidation. Brooks said that 1/3 of a given market is enough control, and that the biases inherent in media meant that more consolidation would mean fewer views.
Brooks is concerned that the "moral agenda" (including homosexuality, adultery and violence) of the big media are being pushed into community homes against dominant community standards.
His company operates various media in NC. His message was for the FCC to maintain current rules against further consolidation of ownership.
Goodmon pointed out that lots and lots of cable channels are not a substitute for localism. He suggested that today there is less diversity, in spite of more channels, because there are fewer sources of programming.
Goodmon stressed the value of local airwaves broadcasters. They're the primary source of local emergency programming, and required by law to operate stations in the public interest.
He pointed out that the local channels have the largest audience on cable and the Internet, locally. (That is, communities/regions are better served by their local media.)
Goodmon's Fox affiliated rejected temptation island, who wants to marry a millionaire, and some other syndicated programming. He defended this decisions as being based simply on their desire to make a good decision for their communities. He said the easy/default path was simply to allow national programming (that you just push a button, and hope the programming is good). He is working to instead make informed decisions about whether & when to push the button.
Goodmon said that their stations do not have the opportunity to purchase syndicated programming, and that this was a problem the FCC should look into. He portrayed a group of pre-determined stations that got the opportunity to purchase syndicated programming.
He also pointed out that because of the "UHF discount," stations with UHF broadcasts only had it counted 50% -- enabling 70%, rather than 35%, ownership in a particular market if UHF rather than VHF is used for broadcast. He said this rule isn't consistent with current broadcast technologies.
Said that he did not want the FCC to raise the 35% ownership cap.
Price shared the story of a decision his station and some of the other independent affiliates had made to not air a national program. But after interaction with the program's producer, the program was changed and then picked up with WXII. He presented this out as evidence for the role and benefit of local independent broadcasters.
Price shared another story from when he worked at a CBS-owned affiliate. He was trying to fight carrying the Howard Stern show Saturday night at 10:00, based on feeling it was inappropriate for the community in that timeslot. He lost this fight, because the network made the decision from NYC and he was stuck with it. Again, this was evidence that the national owners' agendas superseded the local affiliates.
He thinks the ability of local broadcasters to make local decisions is critical, and it was a non-negotiable point when he took his current position.
He asked again to not raise the 35% cap. He asked what the justification for raising the cap would be, and said it would not serve localism.
Ward has been the key decision maker for NBC in the Raleigh market. He stressed the value of local involvement, relevance and acceptance for success of TV. He said that the current rules for ownership miss the point - the true value of locally owned and airwave broadcast TV stations.
Ward described the extensive locally produced programming at WNCN, presenting it as a key value to the station. He described how this transition took place over the last 6 years since NBC bought WNCN. He portrayed WNCN's commitment to local concerns as being the key to their success -- and also mentioned that Goodmon's stations' examples are key to motivating NBC's efforts.
He said that the restrictions on ownership don't make sense, because in fact NBC-17 is more interested in local relevance than has been portrayed. He said that the fact is that nationally owned affiliate stations DO broadcast locally pertinent programming, and pay attention to the needs of the community.
He said that the current broadcast cap favors locally owned stations unfairly. He pointed out that stations with completely different communities served could not be owned by the same company due to ownership caps. He was critical of informercial programming by locally owned stations, which benefit the bottom line but don't offer much to the community.
He said that a weakened local broadcast market would result from restricting national companies from owning more in local markets.
Goodmon said that broadcasting is perhaps the most profitable industry in the world, achieving 50% profits in many markets. He said that economics were not an impediment to quality programming, though poor programming decisions were. The main economic problem has been where people paid too much for a local station, then didn't invest in local programming.
Ward hemmed and hawed a bit, saying he doesn't know much about radio. Then he said that in TV they depend on local managers serving the local interest. His answer wasn't very satisfying, though he knew by now he was in an audience generally opposed to his views.
Goodmon said it would make it more difficult to compete. He said he was concerned that a national owner would come and buy an affiliate, taking it away from Goodmon. Goodmon pointed out that moving to digital would instantly allow stations to allow twice as much because they'll be in UHF rather than VHF.
Hank Price answered, saying that the real test was the station's ability to serve the local community, and that there should be local choices.
Ward said he didn't have an answer, but he trusted the FCC to examine all the ramifications before deciding to relax. He said he didn't see a way to de-consolidate, even in the example of radio today. Ward has faith that the decision process would be sound.
He expressed thanks to the panelists, then started to introduce the next panel.
Faber pointed out that Sinclair doesn't get associated with a lot of news programming, instead getting it from Fox or UPN network affiliations. But in fact they have 30 stations with significant news programming.
He said that economies of scale are the only way that Sinclair can do effective news programming in their markets. They have a service called "news central," in which stuff of interest generally is produced just once then made available to other affiliates.
He defended the view that news central is creating undue non-local news. He said, to the contrary, it frees up time for the local journalists to cover local news more than they would if they were replicating national news. He said that such a model is consistent with wanting to develop more local content, not less.
Faber said that lots of national affiliates of WB, UPN and Fox had little or no ability to produce significant quantities of local news. News central was the only real hope they had to being able to do so.
Heaver said that radio consolidation has robbed communities of localism. He said he feared the same would happen with TV, if rules are relaxed. At local stations, there are often no personnel to report on local news and events.
He owned a local station, sold is for business reasons, and now is buying it back again.
Heaver expressed regret that he had cashed in on relaxed ownership rules. He said he had personally profited from consolidation, but at the public's expense (wow!). He wanted to encourage more independent ownership, not greater concentration of ownership.
He pointed out that further consolidation was anti-democratic, in that it prevented minorities and others without big bucks to afford to buy or run their own media. He had strong words about how localism is not served by current rules, and urged the FCC to make localism a focus.
UNC-TV is 11 TV stations and 23 translators in NC. He pointed out that his comments were his own, not representing UNC. He talked about the choices that were allowed by modern broadcast methods, letting people choose between local materials and national/centralized materials. He said that UNC-TV is an example of the ideal consolidation model.
UNC-TV has a lot of centralization, delivering TV to every community in the state. Their efficiency results in more ability to invest in local programming, including a nightly NC program, a weekly hour on the NC legislature, a weekly diversity program, a weekly culture program, and others - all in prime time. He called these local programs, broadcast instead of national programs. (To me, state-wide programming is not really local.)
40% of the UNC-TV schedule is children's programming, and they also offer education programming. Howe said that he didn't want to see more control go to PBS, versus allowing local decisions by UNC-TV. He said that currently, UNC-TV was free to choose to carry local programming versus the national PBS feed.
Howe said that increased consolidation might result in more pressure from PBS to force affiliates to carry national programming in order to attract sponsors. He said that the national forces, in the aggregate, would always be stronger than local.
Sutton said that consolidation is threatening to black journalists. 25 (or did he say 15?) years ago, a far greater percentage of the NABJ membership was black radio journalists. Since then, these journalists have lost their jobs, due to the reduced number of news programmers a radio stations. Since these stations are no longer locally owned and operated, the jobs have left.
He saw danger in continuing along the path to consolidation. He said that we were heading towards a less informed populace, rather than more informed. We have been losing diversity, from 90+% of radio stations with local news to less than 67% (not sure I got the #s right).
Will broadcasters commit to more diversity, to more viewpoints, and to more localism, if further consolidation is enabled? He didn't think so, though was willing to listen if such a pledge were made.
Sutton read from a letter from the NABJ president. The letter said that relaxing rules would negatively impact diversity.
(Interestingly, the WUNC-TV guy packed up his camera and left. Evidently, they had a 3:00pm cutoff, even though the station head was still on the stage at the front of the room.)
Heavner said that just giving radio a little extra protection would have helped it to survive consolidation better.
Sutton said that as a former college WHOB-FM Virginia, he valued the ability of college stations to (sometimes) deliver alternative programming. He portrayed college radio's listeners as college students (not addressing the larger community). He said he values college radio and would not want to see it go away.
Heavner chimed in saying that local radio (including college, I think) played an important role in simply talking about local events, even when it's not news.
Davis shared his background in broadcasting. He said that diversity has been hurt by consolidation. He said that it's difficult for a small broadcaster to exist in today's environment. He said that local owners were reduced from 8 to 1 since 1996.
Curtis said he thought the new (1996) rules were a mistake, and favored more restrictions. However, he saw some bright sides. One is that his company was able to serve hispanic audiences with programming that would not exist if his company did not already own a non-hispanic station (to help get the hispanic station running).
He described how hard it is now for young media owners to get started as an entrepreneur, as both he and Davis got started. It's made much more difficult by the big publicly-traded companies, which offer insurmountable competition. Curtis described how there are actually more broadcasters now than in years past, but that the increased competition doesn't necessarily mean more programming diversity.
Curtis talked about how owning multiple stations has made it possible for his stations to run lots of their locally pertinent programming. However, he expressed doubt that this was really good overall for localism. (I didn't quite get his logic here - something about it having been good for his company, but not necessarily good overall).
Willis talked a little about bluegrass in the area, and about Pinecone, the Piedmont Council on Traditional Music. He said that WQDR FM 94.7's local bluegrass show was a major benefit for Pinecone, and for exposure to bluegrass music.
Willis pointed out that ALL of the 40 traditional music programs in NC are broadcast on locally owned or public stations. Without such local programming, there would be no venue for such music.
(Tift Merritt's "Bramble Rose" was #40 in the top 88.7 recordings played at WXDU-Durham 88.7 FM in 2002)
Tift explained how her record was the #6 top record of 2002 according to Time Magazine. She was on Letterman, in Vanity Fair, yet does not get radio airplay. She said she's not here to whine about not getting enough radio airplay, but to express her distress about the FCC placing responsibility of the public airwaves in the hands of advertisers, markerters, and people who just don't care about content.
Merritt told how she was selling lots of albums locally, as many as national bands. Country Music Television was playing her songs. Yet, the locally-owned Curtis Media stations did not play her -- "management would have to change the programming." She even said that her father gave her CD to Mr. Curtis.
Merritt portrayed herself as a small businesswomen, who works hard to play music in venues. She seemed bitter that management playlists were silencing artists such as her. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Roberta Flack, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and other NC-borne musicians indicate our heritage. Today, the modern heritage is at risk because there's no airplay.
He said that radio is a bunch of followers - they do what the others are doing, and don't take a lot of risks.
Curtis said that they work hard to make sure their people are not receiving compensation for playing music. However, he said that calls from record companies pressured station personnel into playing music.
Lots of different opinions, of about 2-3 minutes each. 17 people spoke. For the most part, people had their own take on why there should be no relaxation of rules against media ownership.
Here, for the first time today, we heard from and about print media. People complained about current media, told stories of viewpoints or stories unheard, and expressed feelings of distance from big media.
Copps was clearly dissappointed that there are not enough community hearings, and not enough media coverage. He wants the networks to cover this issue, and thinks it will be necessary to have the sort of participatory democracy on this issue that we need.
Copps encouraged us to go forward and get involved.
// Dr. Gregory B. Newby, Assistant Professor in the School of Information // and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill // CB# 3360 Manning Hall, Chapel Hill, NC, 27599-3360 E: email@example.com // V: 919-962-8064 F: 919-962-8071 W: http://www.ils.unc.edu/gbnewby/