Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Actors, musicians oppose U.S. media consolidation

Actors, musicians oppose U.S. media consolidation
By Jeremy Pelofsky

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood actors, producers and musicians on Tuesday crowded into a Federal Communications Commission hearing to clamor for the retention of curbs on the growth and power of big media conglomerates.

The five FCC commissioners, who are considering overhauling ownership limits, found themselves center stage as participants, ranging from Mike Mills, bassist for the rock band R.E.M., to "Rockford Files" producer Stephen Cannell, criticized media mergers they said were drowning out independent voices.

Producers described difficulties getting shows on television networks unless they accepted demands to change actors or storylines. They urged the FCC to require that 25 percent of primetime programming come from independent producers.

"Casting decisions are now made by the networks," said actress Anne-Marie Johnson, who has appeared on popular TV shows like "Melrose Place" and "JAG".

"A requirement for independent voices in production is critical to the completion of a goal of diversity in America," Johnson said during an event that at times sounded like a raucous political rally against media consolidation.

The FCC is reviewing whether broadcasters can be allowed to own more television and radio stations in a specific market, and whether to lift a ban preventing a company from owning a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in a market.

Another rule under review is a ban preventing two of the four major networks from combining.

Marshall Herskovitz, president of the Producers Guild of America, said that given television stations' demands for profits, news editors have to choose between segments that are newsworthy and those that are more "marketable".


Broadcasters argue that there are plenty of outlets for local news, entertainment and information thanks to cable television, the Internet and other providers.

"Media competition today is far more intense than at any time in history," said Bruce Owen, a professor at Stanford University and a representative for three of the broadcast networks, CBS, Fox and NBC.

The general manager of a Los Angeles television station owned by the Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times newspaper and advocates lifting the cross-ownership ban of broadcast outlets and newspapers, said the community has benefited from the dual ownership.

"We do have the enormous reporting capabilities of the L.A. Times and we use that asset to complement, augment and enrich our local news telecasts," said Vincent Malcolm of KTLA, which is an affiliate of the new CW network.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin gave no hints at the hearing about his own views.

"The decisions we will make about our ownership rules will be as difficult as they are critical," said Martin, a Republican. "We must also recognize, though, that some of our rules have not been updated for years and may no longer reflect the current marketplace."

The FCC in 2003 tried to lift the common-ownership ban and permit companies to own more TV stations in a market. However, an appeals court in 2004 sent the agency back to the drawing board, ruling that the limits were not adequately justified.

Martin, who will lead the crafting of the initial proposal of changes to the rules with his staff, has previously expressed a general desire to lift the ban on common-ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets.

He must get at least two of the other commissioners to agree with his plans for the move to pass and address concerns outlined by the appeals court that put the limits on hold. The agency is divided 3-2 in favor of the Republicans.