Key Issues

Media Concentration

Recent mergers between media companies have created corporate leviathans that too often dilute, homogenize, or destroy the work of the tens of thousands of creative artists who work in media. Moreover, by vertically integrating production and distribution of television programming, these conglomerate behemoths are driving independent producers – who so often promote and defend creative voices and visions against the corporate “suits” – entirely out of the business.

Consider that:
• Five giant media conglomerates (Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, GE/NBC, News Corp./FOX, and Time Warner/WB/CNN/TNT) own broadcast and cable outlets that control approximately a 75% share of prime-time viewing, roughly the same share of TV households in prime time as the three broadcast networks did 40 years ago, pre-cable.

• Of the 91 major cable television networks each available in more than 16 million homes, fully 80 percent (73 networks) are owned or co-owned by just six media conglomerates – the same five giant media conglomerates plus Liberty Media. This concentration will increase even more when NBC finalizes its takeover of Vivendi/Universal, owner of USA and Sci-Fi Networks.

• The same five giant media conglomerates plus Vivendi/Universal (which NBC, one of those five giants, will soon own) now also produce the vast majority of programming for television. Of the 40 new series airing on the four major broadcast networks in the 2002 season, 77.5 percent are owned in whole or part by the same four networks, up from 56.3 percent the prior season – an increase of over 37 percent in just one year — and up from just 12.5 percent in 1990.

While the harm inflicted on creative voices is bad enough, media concentration causes an even more insidious harm. Freedom, democracy, and culture require a vigorous competition among many competing ideas, voices, and points of view. Media concentration eliminates that competition in order to increase corporate profits. As citizens, we are all poorer for it. The public interest requires restoration of a vibrant “marketplace of ideas,” full of competing and diverse voices and visions.

We will vigorously oppose any additional media mergers that will cause further harm to the numerous and diverse creative artists and entrepreneurs who help drive our nation’s economy, culture, and democracy.

Creative Freedom and Government Censorship

Our nation’s democracy and culture depend on the fullest and freest expression of ideas. Government censorship of media content is antithetical to these core values, violates the First Amendment, and causes an unacceptable “chilling effect” on creative expression, harming both creative artists and their audience — the American public.

While some argue that our nation’s policymakers have a special duty to protect children from indecent, violent or otherwise objectionable (to them) programming, government censorship is not the way to accomplish this goal. The right to express what some consider offensive speech is the price Americans pay for freedom of political speech and we cannot afford to risk losing that freedom. It is not in the best interests of America’s children to “protect” them from expression that is itself protected by the First Amendment — unobjectionable and appropriate creative works that are challenging, controversial, original, and important. Unfortunately, these protected and salutary works – the very works so many parents want their children to watch — now risk being left on the cutting room floor as a result of a misguided crusade to curb “indecency.”

Today, with the V-chip, and cable and satellite boxes that can block programs and channels, there are even more technological options for parents and others to avoid television programming some might find offensive for their children or themselves. And there are always the low-tech alternatives of changing the channel or turning the television off. We also support the ability of consumers to order their cable networks “a la carte,” so that they are not forced by cable operators’ take-it-or-leave-it packages and bundles to subscribe to networks they deem offensive. In short, we support educating and empowering consumers so they can avoid offending content. That is a far more First Amendment-friendly solution to these issues than having the government become the “National Nanny.”

Rather than censor objectionable content, we believe policymakers should examine their own responsibility for creating it. Changes to laws and regulatory policies have permitted a handful of media conglomerates to dominate the publicly-owned airwaves. One of the consequences of those changes is indecent programming. The Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, brought to America by the Viacom-owned combination of game broadcaster CBS and half-time producer MTV, dramatically demonstrated what’s good for the media conglomerates’ bottom line is too often programming that is “bottom of the barrel.”

Independent program producers and independent locally-owned stations were once important restraints on the networks’ tendency to push objectionable programming to boost their ratings. But FCC “deregulation” allowed media conglomerates to eliminate both independent producers and many locally-owned affiliates. The result is an increase in objectionable programming. It’s time for policymakers to rethink and reverse these indecency-inducing policies, rather than permit even greater concentration, as the FCC tried in 2003 before it was stopped by a federal Court of Appeals.

Self-censorship of media is also rampant. With so much at stake for giant media conglomerates in Washington, from broadcast license renewals to merger approvals to favorable trade and tax treatment, these corporations bend over backward to kowtow to policymakers. The result is media content that is consistently bland and homogenized, watered- and dumbed-down, uncontroversial and unimportant, while the free expression of creative artists is sacrificed.

Too often, media policymakers have their responsibilities under the First Amendment reversed. Over tremendous public protest, they have foisted upon the American public an excessively-concentrated media that restricts free expression. Then, when that excessively-concentrated media inevitably produces indecent material, they censor it. The public loses both ways.

Promoting Independent Creative Voices and Visions

We believe that promoting independent creative voices and visions is not only in the interest of creative artists – it’s also in the interest of the American public. Independent creative voices and visions safeguard and enrich the vitality and diversity of our nation’s democracy and culture, providing a needed counterweight to omnipresent homogenized corporate media. But media consolidation and concentration have made independent creative voices nearly extinct.

One refuge for creative voices has been in small, independent films. That is why we are particularly disappointed by the decision of the Motion Picture Association to restrict the distribution of DVD “screeners” of films up for possible Oscar consideration, on the doubtful grounds of fear of piracy.

Given the economics in filmmaking today, some independent films that are truly worthy of Oscar consideration appear only briefly in movie theaters. Therefore, producers of independent films send out DVDs to creative artists who vote on the Oscars as well as other creative awards. We applaud the call of Robert Altman, Joel Coen, Francis Ford Coppola, Nora Ephron, Robert Redford, Julie Taymor and many others who write they are “honor bound to oppose” this screener ban because it could “irreparably” damage the chances of riskier films to win creative awards and find a broader audience. There are far less onerous ways of preventing piracy than an across the board ban on the distribution of screeners. That “end” does not justify these “means.”

We believe that television and radio broadcasters should not censor the creative works of the artists they hire to create programming. One particularly egregious example was CBS’s decision to cancel its highly anticipated and promoted “The Reagans” miniseries a mere two weeks before its air date, bowing to heavy criticism from those who had never seen it.

CBS is part of giant media conglomerate Viacom, which aggressively lobbies official Washington for a wide variety of corporate favors. Was “The Reagans” sacrificed to these greater Viacom corporate interests in order to appease Washington policymakers? We hope not, but fear it was. This vivid example of the dangers of excessive media concentration sends a chill through the creative community and condemns the American public to an ever blander, more homogenized, uncontroversial, and un-thought provoking broadcast television. It sets a dangerous precedent that harms not only creative artists, but the entire American public.

Open Broadband Internet Access

One of the FCC’s rationales for permitting more media mergers is the existence of the wide-open, unrestricted Internet which, the Commission argues, ensures the American public access to a wide variety of voices and viewpoints in media.

At the same time, however, the FCC ruled that cable operators may monopolize the provision of Internet access on their broadband service, thus eliminating independent service providers. Holding that broadband cable operators must open their broadband lines to competing ISPs such as Earthlink, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently overturned this ill-conceived FCC rule.

Now, the FCC may allow cable broadband ISPs to restrict their customers’ ability to access the entire Internet. Since many of these broadband ISPs have no competition and are also content providers, such as Comcast and AOL/Time Warner, their power to allow customers to access only their own content, or access only content from those who pay them for “carriage,” poses a significant threat to independent and alternative voices using streaming media and other methods to directly reach an audience on the Internet. If the FCC now allows broadband cable providers to offer a restricted Internet, it undercuts its rationale for supporting more media mergers — the public would not be able to access a wide variety of viewpoints and voices.

As FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps eloquently warns, “Innovators, consumers and competitors once again face an entrenched axis with growing potential to stymie competition, deny consumers access and prevent innovations not under their control. But this time the battle is not over media consolidation. This battle is over the future of the Internet.”

We will work vigorously to ensure that creative artists have open access to the broadband internet in order to reach their audience.

Digital Television

Another significant threat to creative artists looms as broadcasters transition from analog to digital broadcasting. The big broadcast networks are heavily lobbying for “digital must-carry” — requiring cable operators to carry up to six different digital channels that will be broadcast by one local station, in place of the one analog broadcast signal that the cable system must carry today.

We are concerned that independent creative voices and independent cable networks will be squeezed out by the sudden explosion of broadcast network digital channels that cable may soon be forced to carry. This “must-carry” of so many more big broadcast network channels would strengthen these networks’ chokehold over the production and distribution of television, further reducing creative voices and viewpoints on both broadcast and cable TV.

We believe the public interest requires that if the FCC allows digital must-carry, then it must at the same time require the broadcast networks to air independently-produced programming on these added digital channels, as well as other public interest programming. The transition to digital broadcasting should create a golden opportunity to enhance independent creative voices and viewpoints on television, not further eliminate them.

Cable

News reports indicate the FCC is considering an increase in the national cable ownership caps from 30 percent to 45 percent. But even at the current 30 percent national ownership cap, cable operators like Comcast already possess anti-competitive monopoly power, holding the threat of life or death over independent, creative networks and programming.

According to a newly released General Accounting Office report prepared at the request of Senator John McCain, broadcasters and cable operators own most cable networks and “cable networks affiliated with these companies are more likely to be carried by cable operators than nonaffiliated networks.” Moreover, in programming those cable networks, these concentrated media conglomerates favor their own in-house TV production over programs from independent producers.

The raising of national cable ownership limits is a threat to creative artists and is not in the public interest. We will vigorously oppose it.