BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On the matter of media deregulation, pigs have sprouted wings. This week the deregulatory juggernaut that has dominated Washington for lo these many years has stopped dead in its tracks. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court blocked the FCC from imposing new rules that would free TV networks to buy more stations. Then on Thursday the Senate Appropriations Committee, following a similar House vote in June, also blocked the rules. Now only a presidential veto can put them on the books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Finally, perhaps too late, lobbyists for CBS, NBC and Fox have descended on Washington armed with new data from a poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz that says the public doesn't mind media consolidation. Their first move was to place ads in two Washington insider papers -- Roll Call and The Hill --with the slogan "America Says: Don't get between me and my TV." On this program you've heard all the reasons why media watchdogs, the creative community and the public fear the consequences of media concentration. We asked NBC vice president and chief lobbyist Robert Okun to lay out the case for it that the networks are trying to sell to a Congress that isn't in the mood to buy.
ROBERT OKUN: Well, from our perspective, this is really a battle in order to preserve free over the air broadcasting. Close to 20 percent of the country still does not subscribe to either satellite television or to cable television --they get their television free over the air just by plugging in their set and putting up their rabbit ears. And our main competitors in this battle are cable and satellite. They have a dual revenue stream whereby they can offer subscriptions. Can also offer advertising, and they also do original programming and they're constantly over the years taking away audience share from free over the air broadcasters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But do you think that that argument will fly -- that the networks don't have the financial wherewithal to compete with cable.
ROBERT OKUN:Well, it's a very good point that you make, and we are the only highly regulated of all of those content providers, and satellite doesn't have any of the regulations that we have. Cable clearly doesn't have either the ownership type of regulations or the content regulations that free over the air broadcasting has. That is, they can put on much edgier programming that we really can't do at the network or at the broadcast level. Gives them a tremendous advantage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But when you talk about leveling the playing field and you refer to the cost constraints that you labor under and the content restraints, wasn't that what you got in exchange for all those free frequencies? You guys got a huge windfall! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ROBERT OKUN: That was a business that had to be developed; those licenses developed value and were traded and bought and sold over the years, and in exchange there were public interest obligations. A lot of these rules were on the books -- some dating back to World War II -- and clearly with the dawn of the internet, almost 90 channels in each person's home, on average, if you subscribe to cable -- well the diversity of views has changed the landscape for broadcasting, and so these rules do need to be updated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let me ask you about the polling data that underlies your campaign by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. He says that the Americans that he polled don't have any problem with increasing media consolidation and that 87 percent of those polled think they already have an adequate number of choices for receiving news.
ROBERT OKUN: We were very surprised to find that people were generally happy with their local TV stations. They didn't begrudge the fact that they were owned by television networks; that in many cases they found very good local news and information coverage, and they were worried about too much political influence on their ability to have a variety of choices, and that they felt in many cases they had plenty of options to choose from, whether it was cable, satellite, broadcast and so on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But then how do the networks account for the fact that the FCC received a reported two million faxes and e-mails from members of the public across the country, all of whom were opposing the rule change that would increase the reach of networks?
ROBERT OKUN: I would suggest that a lot of the e-mail-driven comments that came into the commission during that very intensive time before they, they finally ruled were driven by certain interest groups, and I, I won't get into that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so the, so the slogan that you're putting before legislators in Washington is America Says: Don't get between me and my TV. So what you're saying is that rolling back the FCC rule change is somehow interfering with the relationship between the public and their TV. How so?
ROBERT OKUN: Well I, I think - as it turns out, our ability to own TV stations is a) profitable -- so it does help us at the network level to produce the programming that people like to watch. But it also happens to intersect, I believe, with the public interest. If you look at a network-owned station, whether it's Fox or, or ABC or CBS or NBC, on average we do 30 percent more local news and information programming than non-network-owned stations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the fact is that NBC can tell its affiliates not to run local programming if it would cover over a network feed!
ROBERT OKUN:People may believe that, you know, that, that if a network owns a station, it can influence the programming of a local station, but the reality is we want local stations to cover local issues and local news, because that's what local viewers want.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The Wall Street Journal predicts that your ad campaign represents the opening salvo in what is likely to be a bitter fight in Washington this fall. Do you think you'll win this fight?
ROBERT OKUN: Well the White House has come out and said that, that they would veto legislation that contained a rollback of the FCC's rules, and so-- I think it'll come down to that negotiation between the House, the Senate and, and the White House but I, I think the White House clearly is supporting its FCC's very prudent approach to some modest deregulation to keep free over the air broadcasting robust.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much!
ROBERT OKUN: Well it's my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Okun is vice president of NBC and the network's Washington lobbyist. [MUSIC]