Presidential ballot box makes rounds at media fest

SUN VALLEY, Idaho (Reuters) - Democrat Barack Obama appeared to be the favorite White House contender among media moguls at an annual Idaho retreat, even if they were not so certain how an Obama victory would affect their businesses.

With a slumping U.S. economy, weak media stock prices and a host of challenges facing the entertainment industry, many executives at the investment bank-hosted confab in Sun Valley expected a change in Washington.

Even News Corp Chief Rupert Murdoch, who has backed the Republican Party in the past few years but has predicted a Democratic landslide, was impressed by Obama after spending an hour with him.

“There’s a sliver of hope that America could be great under Obama,” he told reporters on Thursday evening. “I got to meet him for an hour and I’m seduced.”

“But I like (Republican presidential candidate John) McCain too,” said Murdoch, who has not officially endorsed a candidate.

Sony Corp Chairman and Chief Executive Howard Stringer told Reuters he expected Obama to win but, when asked if Obama would be good for business, the Wales-born U.S. citizen was less sure.

“I don’t know what’s good for business, with the oil crisis, food crisis...,” Stringer said.

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Conference host Allen & Co passed around a faux ballot box for attendees, many from Hollywood and already backing Obama, such as DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Katzenberg, director Steven Spielberg and his Dreamworks movie studio partner, David Geffen, are organizing an Obama fundraiser. Geffen and Spielberg were not at the conference.

“Generally, the entertainment business has leaned Democratic but even these days you see a lot of Republicans looking for change,” said former Viacom Inc CEO Tom Freston, principle of Firefly3. “The mood of the country seems to be 80 percent in one direction, not happy with the status quo.”

“By and large, the Republican approach is staring up a hill as steep as one can imagine,” said another prominent attendee, who did not want to be identified.

But he was also not sure if an Obama administration would be good for media companies. Democrats tend to take a tougher stance on industry regulation, such as antitrust approvals for major mergers. “I’m not a believer that higher taxes are good for business,” he said.

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A big issue for the media and telecommunications industries that the next administration will likely have to address is the heated debate on a policy issue known as “network neutrality.”

Kevin Martin, appointed by President George W. Bush to head the Federal Communications Commission, is exploring whether rules are needed to prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing the flow of content over their networks.

The issue has gained attention since Comcast Corp was found to be delaying traffic of some video files between Internet users.

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Such rules would address concerns that cable and phone companies would become de facto Internet gatekeepers and could slow services that threaten their businesses or partners.

But Hollywood studios and other content providers tend to oppose so-called net-neutrality rules, saying they would eliminate a potential tool for fighting online piracy.

Mario Gabelli, chief investment officer for GAMCO Investors Inc, a huge media investment firm, declined to say who he supported in the election, but said the vote would have huge ramifications for media.

“I’m just watching who is going to head up the Federal Communications Commission,” he said. “Look at the example of who President Bush put in, a Republican, and they’ve had the wrong focus.

“Net neutrality makes no sense. You have to maintain a highway and the owners of that highway need to move traffic one way or another. I don’t want someone who is a bandwidth hog controlling my access,” Gabelli said, noting he has clients on both sides of the debate.

Additional reporting by Kenneth Li; Editing by Braden Reddall and Bill Trott