Pros talk pros/cons
of media concentration


The School of Communications sponsored a panel discussion titled "Media Concentration: Who Owns What We Watch and Read, and Does it Matter?" as part of its spring Advisory Board meeting April 1.

The discussion was led by an all-star group of media professionals from all over the United States, including Jim Hefner, vice president and general manager at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C.; Bill Warren, vice president of public affairs, Walt Disney World; Jim Winston, executive director of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters in Washington; Debora Wilson, chief operating office of The Weather Channel in Atlanta; and Graham Woodlief, president of the Publishing Division, Media General Inc., in Richmond, Va.

WRAL executive Hefner led off with a denunciation of federal policies that have led to a dwindling number of owners in an exploding galaxy of communications.

"It's about money, and it's about power, and it's damned important, " he said. "It's about very few people controlling the marketplace of ideas. Very soon - if we're not careful - we're going to have only five or six companies controlling everything. That's dangerous."

Hefner said he and many other broadcast leaders don't want to see a handful of companies dominate the business because the broadcast spectrum is limited. "[FCC Chairman] Michael Powell sees no difference between WRAL-TV and the Playboy Channel," Hefner said.

"There's significant difference in the way we operate as responsible members of our community - in the way we perform community service. The way we are headed is not a good thing for the marketplace of ideas."

Disney executive Warren said the buyouts of local newspapers by media behemoths such as Gannett, Hearst and Tribune Company has a negative impact on local news coverage. Tribune took over the operation of his hometown newspaper in Orlando.

"When it's all local, it's all personal - ownership gets involved," he said. "Now we see this newspaper's profits leaving the market and we have no meaningful dialogue in our paper. There's no one pushing them to dig in and make a difference. I miss the community dialogue."

Winston, of NABOB, said the trend to fewer companies owning most of the outlets causes damage at a variety of levels.

"Mergers are eliminating a lot of entry-level jobs," he said.

"Big business is driven purely by profit. The easiest way to make a profit is to buy up your competitors and cut operating budgets and jobs. If I'm a shareholder I reap a profit, but the American public as a whole do not.

"If only a half dozen companies own the way you get the news, you won't get a full and rich discourse about issues."

Wilson said The Weather Channel is the only fully distributed cable/satellite channel that stands as a single network - with no sister networks such as NBC/Bravo/MSNBC/CNBC.

While she said TWC executives don't have the same pressures as other cable networks that are tied to bigger TV groups, their network is subject to the whims of the major cable TV providers with which they must regularly negotiate contracts.

"Comcast has more than 23 million subscribers - more than a quarter of the homes we reach with our network," she said. "If Comcast decides to leverage us to reduce our fees, it causes significant impact on our earnings and ability to operate. The other thing the huge cable operators could do with their large scale and assets is to threaten begin their own weather channel.

"They could decide not to carry us or block us altogether. The power that large, concentrated distributors have can make big waves."

Media General executive Woodlief was the lone voice in favor of media concentration and convergence, arguing it can improve the quality of content offered to consumers - as in the case of his moderately sized company offering news to its communities - because it makes sense to pool the information resources of a local TV station, newspaper and online operation. That's the model in Tampa, where Media General owns a converged news operation of this type.

"By convergence I mean putting it all together to assemble a better report," he said. "We still have separate newsrooms, making separate decisions.

"We need to put out the best product we can so we can compete with all of those voices out there. Consumers will decide what succeeds in the marketplace."

Winston offered his solution to what most of the panelists perceived to be a big problem with today's media ownership rules. "Go back to the rules before 1996," he said. "Clear Channel owns 1,200 radio stations today. You don't need 1,200 stations to be successful. The government should never have let that happen."



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Last Modified:  4/02/04
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