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Isle TV consolidation hurts public interest


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POSTED: Sunday, September 27, 2009

I, for one, support and applaud the Hawaii Media Counsel's challenge to the merger of three Honolulu television stations into one corporate entity with three faces because the merger violates anti-trust principles.

It is against the public interest of having a wide diversity of news-outlet viewpoints on the public airwaves, and is therefore a violation of Federal Communications Commission licensing laws.

At the same time, the advertising advantages the companies seek from denying independent news coverage will make it harder for real local news-providing competitors to compete with them.

For decades since its inception in 1934, FCC rules forbade the ownership of more than one television station in any one market by the same owner, because it was against the public interest of having diverse news viewpoints.

However, big corporate media have been striving relentlessly for decades to maximize their advertising profits while limiting the diversity of news and programming viewpoints and voices in television.

That is why when Indiana-based Emmis Communications Corp. bought KHON in 1998, it obtained a waiver that allowed it to buy KGMB.

The waiver was needed because both stations were top-rated network affiliates in the Honolulu market and one company owning both of them was clearly illegal. Emmis' purchase was a bet the law would change.

Emmis requested and received from the commission a six-month waiver of the duopoly rule, pledging to divest one of the two Honolulu stations during that period.

In 2003, during the Bush administration, the FCC under Michael Powell voted to allow destruction of the “;duopoly rule,”; which barred ownership of more than one media outlet in a market. However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals handed Powell's Republican-dominated FCC a stunning major defeat on June 22, 2004, shooting down his corporate-friendly plan to encourage even more consolidation in media ownership. The Third Circuit Court reaffirmed their illegality in violation of the public interest.

There are so few truly independent news voices left in Hawaii. Allowing the Emmis illegal duopoly “;exception”; to continue, now that the attempt to amend the duopoly rule has failed, undermines that fragile communications environment here.

There are only four television stations in Hawaii that have news-gathering staff. This merger would reduce that number to merely three independent news gathering sources, a 25 percent reduction, which is huge.

These corporate movements are part of a destructive trend that has cost thousands of local jobs that must be reversed for the sake of a robust economy.

When several local stations have the same ownership, it is common practice for the sales staff to sell advertising on all the stations as a package, usually at a rate that is less than it would cost to buy ad time on the stations separately. While this may seem like a good deal for local advertisers, in reality it has the effect of raising overall ad costs.

These package ad rates also tend to undercut independently owned stations, who can't offer the same sort of packages.

Freedom of speech and the press are important for many reasons. A free press plays a watchdog role on government, exposing misdeeds, mistakes and mishaps that officials would like to keep quiet. It also ensures that citizens have access to all points of view and can make informed political decisions.

“;An enlightened citizenry,”; Thomas Jefferson once said, “;is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”;

Where programming content is controlled locally, it is more responsive to community needs. Pooled news services reduce the ability of local stations to present local stories, and conglomerates reduce local-oriented content.

Fight the monopolization of the public's mass media airwaves by a few conglomerates. Demand that major TV station ownership in Honolulu provide local media coverage from all such stations. Free KGMB and KHNL from illegal conglomerate ownership that seeks to reduce public service and local news jobs and outlets while maximizing profit and monopolizing local ad dollars.

Return diversity and competition in news reporting and TV to Hawaii.

Andre S. Wooten is a local civil rights attorney who has worked in public television and produces public affairs programming in Honolulu.