THE STORY TO WATCH

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With New Year's Day comes the urge to predict the future. Our prediction is an easy one: The impact of telecommunications "reform," assuming Democrats and Republicans finally enact it, will be the marketing story of the new year.

Admittedly, the details are still uncertain. At press time, some House Republicans were holding out for less restrictive rules on TV station ownership. They would allow one owner to control stations reaching 50% of U.S. TV homes rather than the 35% agreed to by Democrats; the current limit is 12 stations or a 25% U.S. TV household reach.

And, wisely we think, others in the House GOP were fighting to strike from the bill provisions that threaten Internet-based media with criminal sanctions if they make "indecent" material accessible to youngsters.

Why the marketing story of the year? Because of its broad impact. What ad agency does not salivate at the chance to help quarterback the giants of the telephone business as they stake out claims in local and long-distance service markets opened up to all comers? After all, AT&T, MCI and Sprint, spent $1.1 billion in measured media in 1994 to promote long distance alone.

What TV or radio empire builder is not calculating where and what to buy as ownership limits tumble? What cable TV operator is not pondering which alliances will assure it a place in the fast-changing future?

Even the warmup to "reform" has been breathtaking enough: Rupert Murdoch's lightning buildup of his Fox network, Walt Disney Co.'s combination with Capital Cities/ABC, Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s buyout of CBS, AT&T's decision to split into three separate companies.

With the passage of this legislation, there will be still more to come. The possible combination of Bell Atlantic and Nynex is just one of many potential steps that can remake the business landscape.

This bill will eventually pass in some form, and the effects will reach more than just those companies involved in the mergers, alliances and buyouts to come. Every player with a stake in the huge marketplace for TV and radio advertising time, for example, needs to watch how that marketplace changes.

Is the brave new world one where the same half-dozen owners operate in every major city? That's the story to watch as we march toward the 21st century.

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