FCC Chairman Proposes Relaxation of Cross-Media Rules

Martin Seeks to Allow Newspapers in Top 20 Markets to Own TV, Radio Stations

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin this morning proposed an easing of current media ownership rules that should please newspaper publishers -- but the Newspaper Association of America feels the proposed change doesn't go far enough.
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin

Mr. Martin would like the FCC to conclude its review of current media-ownership rules by easing some of the standards for determining when newspapers and broadcasters can have the same ownership in the same market. Though newspaper publishers had hoped to have the rule completely eliminated, the proposal's wording could make getting waivers to own newspapers and broadcast stations in a market far easier. Mr. Martin laid out his proposal in an opinion piece in The New York Times this morning.

Loss for small-market stations
The proposal could be a significant blow to owners of smaller-market stations who had hoped the FCC would let them buy additional stations in their market.

Consumer groups said that if the changes go through, they plan to challenge them in court.

"If this is what the commission adopts, we will be back in court," said Andy Schwartzman, director of the Media Access Project, the public interest law firm which overturned the last FCC attempt to rewrite ownership rules. "This will reduce diversity. It is a much more permissive scheme than is presently in effect. It will reduce diversity, in media markets, throughout the country."

Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, said that while the proposed rule offers lofty rhetoric about saving American newspapers and ensuring diversity of voices, it also contains "a giant loophole that could open the backdoor to runaway media consolidation in nearly every market. Martin is ignoring overwhelming opposition from the public and Congress to yet another massive giveaway to Big Media."

Mr. Martin in an FCC press release called the recommendation "conservative in approach" and said that any other relaxation of radio and broadcast rules "should not be allowed."

One change suggested
Mr. Martin's only suggested change targets the 32-year-old rule that completely bans cross-ownership. He proposed it be amended to generally allow combinations in the top 20 media markets and allow combinations in other markets in certain instances.

In the top 20 markets, a newspaper owner could buy and own a TV station or radio station, but not any of the market's top four properties, as defined by ratings from 9 a.m. to midnight. Mr. Martin further proposed that approval rest on whether after the combination there remain eight independently owned and operated media voices locally.

In smaller markets, he proposed the FCC adopt a new standard for waivers that analysts said could allow newspaper owners to get waivers more easily. Instead of granting waivers based on financial hardship, as currently happens, the FCC could grant them if cross-ownership would increase the amount of local news disseminated and each media outlet exercises independent news judgment.

"The Chairman's proposed solution to the onerous, decades-old newspaper/broadcast cross ownership ban is extremely limited and does not go nearly far enough to deal with the issues that he himself raises in his statement and in the New York Times today, however well-intentioned," John F. Sturm, president-CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, said in a statement. "The fundamental issues he raises concerning the vitality of newspapers and assuring that local news remains available to the public in print and in broadcast are not confined to the top-20 markets.

"As we have said repeatedly for the last 10 years, the record at the FCC supports full and complete repeal of this outdated rule. As the Chairman noted, even the court in 2003 agreed that, 'reasoned analysis supports the Commission's determination that the blanket ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership was no longer in the public interest."

The rule, if approved by FCC commissioners in December, would have the immediate effect of forcing Tribune Co. to sell off WGN radio in Chicago (where the publisher owns the Chicago Tribune) and either its Hartford TV stations or the Hartford Courant, but otherwise would let it keep TV stations and its dailies in Los Angeles and Miami that violate the cross-ownership rule. The company didn't return a request for comment. Tribune is being sold to investor Sam Zell and an employee stock-ownership group.
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