Broadcasters sense victory

Apr 2, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Prodded by GOP lawmakers, the Federal Communications Commission is preparing to conduct a comprehensive review of the broadcast ownership rules, setting the stage for possible further relaxation of the restrictions.

Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell told a House panel last week that the agency will examine in May whether to retain the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban.

Meanwhile, a more comprehensive review of related rules-including the 35 percent broadcast ownership cap-will follow this summer.

The newspaper-broadcast rule bars entities from owning both a newspaper and a television station or radio station in the same market, but the FCC has made some exceptions, issuing occasional waivers or grandfathering some companies when the ban took effect in 1975.

Opponents of the ban say it’s no longer justified because there are plenty of media voices these days, given the rise of cable, satellite TV and the Internet. Supporters say it’s necessary to guarantee diversity of opinions in an environment of ever-increasing consolidation.

Industry officials already smell victory.

“NAB welcomes the review of this antiquated ban and believes this review is long overdue,” National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Jeff Bobeck said.

“I think we’re going to knock this rule out or get significant relief,” said Shaun Sheehan, Washington lobbyist for the Tribune Co., which owns newspapers and TV stations in several large markets under FCC exemptions. Tribune has plenty at stake, including properties it acquired when it bought Times Mirror. It owns newspapers and TV stations in Chicago, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York/Long Island and Hartford, Conn.

Belo and Cox also own newspapers and TV stations in the same markets under special dispensation from the FCC.

One reason for the confidence is that the GOP, which generally backs relaxing broadcast ownership restrictions, controls the FCC, White House and Congress. The last two FCC chairmen, both Democrats, dragged their feet on reviewing the ban.

And sources are encouraged that Mr. Powell will review the newspaper-broadcast ban as a stand-alone item, rather than as part of a larger review this summer, which will examine the 35 percent broadcast ownership cap, a far more divisive and controversial issue.

NAB wants to retain the 35 percent cap, but the networks want to increase it.

Mr. Powell told reporters the FCC promised long ago to look at the newspaper-broadcast restrictions.

“There are also transactions that were sort of conditioned on the outcome, and there ain’t no outcome. That was one of the things I thought right away that we needed to get going,” he said.

Is he predisposed to relaxing or eliminating the rule?

“No, not particularly. I need to look at that case first,” he told Electronic Media.

Mr. Powell announced his intentions during a four-hour hearing last Thursday on FCC reform before the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

While he didn’t say whether he wants to modify the 35 percent cap, he said the rule-which stems from the 1970s when there was an entirely different media environment-“should be validated if it has any merit at all in the current context.” Existing FCC rules that can no longer be justified in today’s ever-changing marketplace should be terminated, he said.

He said the FCC should “resist” regulatory intervention whenever possible and focus instead on enforcement.

“Our fines are trivial. They’re the cost of doing business for many of these companies,” he said.

On a related note, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., will soon reintroduce legislation that eases the duopoly rules, grandfathers some existing local marketing agreements, boosts the ownership cap and eliminates the one-to-a-market rule as well as the broadcast-cable and newspaper-TV/radio restrictions.

Mr. Powell has emerged as a favorite son on Capitol Hill among Republicans and Democrats alike. House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., told Mr. Powell he felt like applauding after the FCC regulator gave his opening statement.

Democratic Rep. Thomas Sawyer of Ohio said Mr. Powell put on a “virtuoso” performance.

“I have full faith and confidence in you, and I plan on giving you the time and resources you need to do the job and then assess where Congress may need to take the [FCC reform] initiative to implement or perfect your plans,” said Fred Upton, R-Mich., head of the telecommunications subcommittee.