News Headlines from the Dec. 2 Radioshow: Indecency Day at the Senate Commerce Committe; Parents and Televangelists Not So Happy With Gov’t Indecency Regs; Giant Alternative Weekly Merger

These are the media news headlines as read on the Dec. 2 edition of the mediageek radioshow.

Indecency Day at the Senate Commerce Committee
These days, indecency is never gone too long, or, at least, Congress’ love affair with indecency. On Tuesday, Nov. 29 the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on broadcast indecency, and the cable industry, broadcasters and the FCC were all on hand to throw in more than their two cents.

But FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was definitely the star of the show, making a two-pronged attack on cable and satellite TV. First, Martin asked Congress to pass legislation that would allow the FCC to regulate indecent content on cable. Second, he suggested that cable channels be available individually on an a la carte basis rather than in packages as they are most currently offered.

These requests didn’t sit well with Kyle McSlarrow, head of the National Cable Television Association. McSlarrow told Senators that in the past the Supreme Court has “very clearly” ruled that these sorts of restrictions would be a violation of the First Amendment.

Interestingly, former Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell made similar arguments during his tenure as chair, making public remarks early this year saying that he believed leveling indecency regulations on cable TV would be unconstitutional.

Powell also had opposed cable a la carte, and Martin took aim at a report on cable a la carte written by the FCC’s Media Bureau under Powell’s direction. Martin said that report “makes mistakes in its basic calculations” and is based on “incorrect and biased analysis.” According to Martin a new FCC report on a la carte show that it “could be economically feasible and in consumers’ best interest.”

Martin backs a la carte because it would allow parents to select only the cable channels they want to receive, and count out ones they believe will contain material they don’t want their children to see.

Another option Martin offered was for cable operators to offer tiers that would be what he calls “family friendly.”

Consumers groups also back cable a la carte, but for different reasons. They like it because it gives more power and choice to consumers to only pay for channels they want, rather than having to subscribe to an entire tier just to get one or two channels.

Media conglomerate Disney split its vote on the issues. As a large owner of broadcast television stations the company is willing to see indecency regulations apply equally to broadcast and cable. But as the owner of cable channels like ESPN, Disney’s executive Vice President told hearing attendees that a la carte would end up costing cable operators billions of dollars.

On the commerce committee, Martin found the most support coming from committee Democrats like Jay Rockerfeller of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Extending indecency regs to cable and satellite is most popular with committee Republicans, especially chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska. He told the committee that if the courts end up overturning new indecency regulations, it “would be a great disappointment to the American family.”

Parents and Televangelists Not So Happy With Gov’t Indecency Regs
And yet, according to a new poll, the folks at the top of the Amercian family, the parents, would rather that the government butt out. 91% of parents polled said they favored parental involvement as the best way of preventing children from “seeing what they shouldn’t see.” Only 9% of parents said the government should increase control and enforcement of network television programming.

If the poll is an accurate representation of the nation’s view on the subject of broadcast indecency, then it would appear that Congress is greatly out of step on the issue.

The survey, conducted by Rusell Research, polled 513 parents with children ages 2-17 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3%.

Yet, it should be noted that the poll was funded by TV Watch, a broad-based coalition that opposes government control of TV programming and promotes the use of such tools as content ratings and parental controls. Its members include the American Conservative Union, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and TV network owners like Viacom Inc., News Corp. and NBC Universal.

And still another group that you’d think would be rallying around any effort to restrict indecency would be Christian televangelists. But not if that effort involves a la carte. Just like the rest of the cable industry, televangelists don’t want consumers to pick and choose their channels individually, because many people might not choose to receive evangelist networks.

Paul Crouch Jr. of the Trinity Broadcast Network told the Los Angeles Times, “The bottom line is that we want to be everywhere on cable.”

Giant Alternative Weekly Merger
Moving from broadcast indecency to corporate indecency, it looks like federal regulators aren’t going to get in the way of the merger between the nation’s two largest weekly newspaper chains. New York Based Village Voice Media is set to combine with Phoenix-based New Times to create a chain of 17 alternative weeklies.

Although the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust division of the Justice Dept. don’t appear to see anything anticompetitive about the merger, that’s not been the opinion of the US, California and Ohio attorneys general in the past

The two chains have been cited for direct and willful violations of antitrust laws in a deal under which the chains effectively traded monopoly markets, closing competing papers in Los Angeles and Cleveland so each could dominate the alternative weekly market in one city. The consent decree that all parties signed in 2003 bars New Times and Village Voice Media from doing any more business deals without the approval of both federal and state regulators.

The combined New Times-Village Voice company would reach between 22 and 25 percent of the total circulation of the 126 members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Even the largest operator of daily newspapers, Gannett, reaches only 13.8 percent of all readers nationally.

The corporate cultures of the two companies are known to be very different, with Village Voice giving a great deal of autonomy to individual papers, and New Times taking much more corporate control. New Times has policy against making political endorsements and editorials. Industry observers wonder if the merger will spell the end of stories critical of the Bush administration in Village Voice papers. Readers of these papers are worried that they will see an overall decline in the quality of reportage and commentary in their local weeklies.

According to merger documents obtained by the San Francisco Bay Examiner, the merged company may close three papers, the SF Weekly, East Bay Express, and Cleveland Scene. The SF Weekly and East Bay Express may also be combined. The new company may also be sold in as little as three years – most likely to an even bigger chain such as Gannett or to a high-tech company like Google, Microsoft or eBay.

It all just goes to show that in the world of alternative weeklies, the alternative ain’t so different that what it’s supposed to be alternative to.


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