FCC Looks to Revise Media-Ownership Rules

Seeks Change in Ban on Broadcast, Newspapers Under Same Roof

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- The Federal Communications Commission today is reexamining the nation's media-ownership rules in an action that could have far-reaching and long-term impact on media companies.
Kevin Martin
Kevin Martin

First attempt overturned
Two years ago, an appellate court overturned the FCC's first attempt at rewriting the rules, which would have allowed one media company to own up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the local newspaper and the local cable provider in major markets. The rewritten rules also increased consolidation in smaller markets.

The court said the FCC hadn't sought enough public comment -- holding only one hearing -- and that it had based its rules on a flawed statistical analysis that wrongly suggested weeklies and internet news sites were equal to daily newspapers in providing local content. The court directed the FCC to try again.

Today, the FCC voted to do just that and sought public comment on ownership issues. Chairman Kevin J. Martin promised a "vital process" that would include six hearings across the country. The FCC will also pay for independent research into some issues, instead of relying on industry data as it did last time. Mr. Martin said the commission "should take into account the competitive realities of the media marketplace" while also striving to meet diversity goals.

Mr. Martin said the FCC research would examine how the public gets its news and information, the level of competition across media platforms, marketplace changes since its last look at the issue, and the potential impact of changes on independent and family-friendly programming.

Reevaluating cross-ownership restrictions
Another rule that will be examined is the current FCC limit on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership in a single market.

The cross-ownership rule bans newspapers and broadcasters from being owned by the same company in one market. (Although some markets do have newtworks and newspapers owned by the same company, from a time before the rule was adopted.)

"I think the newspaper-broadcast rule hasn't had any changes since the 1970s, while a lot of the other rules have changed. I've been very public about thinking the commission needs to reevaluate, but we are just beginning the process," Mr. Martin said.

Last time around, the FCC's ownership battle turned contentious and ended up drawing more than 2 million comments to the FCC as well as a Senate rebuke.

The two Democratic members of the commission, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, voted against part of the FCC's notice to reexamine the rules, saying they were concerned that the importance of having numerous local voices in a market hadn't been adequately determined by the FCC yet. They also said the public should get another chance to comment again once the FCC develops a specific proposal.

'Totally inadequate'
Mr. Adelstein called the new examination of the rules "totally inadequate," citing the FCC's failure to commit to offering consumers a second chance to comment after the agency proposes new rules.

"We seem to be repeating past mistakes," he said. "It's like a blank check to giant media companies."

"If we make the wrong decision, our communities will suffer and our country will suffer," Mr. Copps said. "On media consolidation, there are no red and blue states."

Consumer groups -- which were slow to respond the last time, but eventually generated a record-breaking number of comments to the FCC -- claim they will start out much stronger this time and have already launched both a lobbying effort aimed directly at Capitol Hill and a grassroots effort aimed consumers.
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