FCC set for next ownership hearing in Nashville

BY JARED ALLEN and AMY GRIFFITH, Nashville City Paper

The company that owns The Tennessean would be allowed to buy a local television station if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relaxes its long-standing rules governing how much of a local media market any single company can own.

That is just one of the many changes that could take place among Nashville’s media outlets if the FCC goes ahead with its chairman’s push to raise the media ownership percentage cap.

Currently, the FCC allows a single company to own 38.5 percent of the “market share” of any given city, which is loosely defined as the percentage of the total audience that any one company can reach through a combination of television, radio, newspapers and Internet.

The FCC has been trying to raise that cap to 45 percent, which would free up the ability of some big media companies to acquire even more of a city’s media outlets, as well as expand “cross ownership,” which occurs, for example, when one company owns a newspaper and a television or radio station in one city.

But before the The Tennessean’s parent company, Gannett – already the largest newspaper chain in the county – can vie for one of Nashville’s TV stations, the FCC’s five commissioners have agreed to let the public give its input on what is being called the media consolidation movement.

At best, reactions in Nashville to media consolidation can be described as mixed.

Some local television station officials say the time has come to loosen the rules, and along with the explosion of Internet-based media, today’s caps may actually stifle competition because they prevent current established stations from venturing into Internet markets.

On the other hand, the potential for the further consolidation of radio stations has many area artists worried that radio will lose any semblance of local flavor if the same company – which already owns multiple stations in a multitude of cities – operates too many stations here.

As the center of the country music universe, Nashville likely has much to gain or lose from such changes. It is one the reasons why the FCC decided to come here to solicit the input of music industry leaders and experts on its way to making a final determination as to what the best rules are, said FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, a Nashville area native.

The public hearings will be held, starting at 1 p.m. Monday, at the Massey Performing Arts Center at Belmont University.

Two panels are slated to testify before the Commission, after which the public will be invited to share its thoughts.
Taylor has said she hopes for a vibrant discussion, especially from the general public.

But the commissioners will also hear from stars such as Naomi Judd and George Jones, along with a slew of recording industry spokespersons.

They also will hear from the broadcasters and independent programmers responsible for filling the Music City airwaves with everything from news to entertainment.

Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, said Thursday that he would testify about “what the mass consolidation of radio has done to the process of songwriting.”

“These decisions that people involved in radio have made may be good decisions for them, but they [force] songwriters to have to make bad artistic decisions,” Carnes said. “It also means that some guy in New York City is deciding what the people in Jonesboro, Arkansas are going to get to listen to.”

That is bad for niche genres like bluegrass, but may be good for more popular ones like country, according to two independent studies on media consolidation released in October.

Either way, Carnes said, the result is the homogenization of music on the radio.

“It used to be that everywhere there was music that sounded like it was from somewhere. Now we’ve got music everywhere that sounds like it’s from nowhere,” he said.

On the media side, Debbie Turner, president and general manager of news Channel 5 in Nashville, said that, for her industry, the issue is not one of ownership but of ensuring the benefits of competition.

“Bottom line is that some people are saying [cross ownership] prohibitions should be lifted so we can be more competitive,” Turner said.

And Turner said the rule change would help television stations offer more local content because they would be freed from constraints that currently forbid them from offing such content across multiple spectrums, such as television and the Internet.

The same studies that found that radio content would become less localized through media consolidation found that television programming likely would become more localized.

“That’s going to be my message on Monday on the panel, that we’re all about local and all about supporting the community,” Turner said. “And I just want to be able to stay competitive long-term, to be able to compete with the Internet and with wireless, and to be able to continue to compete with cable [television].”

article originally published at http://www.nashvillecitypaper.com/index.cfm?section=9&screen=news&news_id=53599.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey