FCC Will Not Yield

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Refusing to yield to escalating pressure from Democrats, GOP Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell last week announced that the agency will stick to his longtime plan to vote on new media ownership rules June 2.
Earlier in the week, the FCC’s two Democrats-Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps-formally asked Mr. Powell to put off the vote for at least a month to give them more time to study the issues. A coalition of more than 90 House Democrats also requested a postponement to give the public an opportunity to comment on the specific proposed changes.
But in a May 15 statement, Mr. Powell said he has decided to stick to the original schedule, in part because his two GOP colleagues at the FCC-Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin-made clear their opposition to delay.
“It is not customary to do so [grant a request for a delay] over the strong objections of a majority of commissioners who are prepared to proceed or where Congress has statutorily set the pace of our deliberations, as is the case here,” Mr. Powell said.
This is the first time in many years an FCC chairman has not granted a short delay at the request of a commissioner. However, in the past, the requests usually were accompanied by behind-the-scenes agreements from at least two of the other five commissioners. In this case, the two Democrats want a delay while the three Republican members of the FCC insist on pushing forward with the June 2 vote.
In his statement last week, Mr. Powell announced that he had waived usual agency security requirements to allow the commissioners to meet with lobbyists on ownership issues through May 30. Agency rules normally bar lobbying one week before a scheduled vote.
Said Mr. Copps, in response, “The chairman’s decision not to make these proposals public, nor even to grant a short delay in voting, runs roughshod over the request of the American people and the precedents of this commission. This rush to judgment means that we will not fully understand the impact of the specific proposals on our media landscape before we are forced to vote.”
Details of Mr. Powell’s proposals on ownership began leaking soon after he delivered the official recommendations to his agency colleagues May 12. Perhaps the most radical proposal would let one broadcaster own up to three TV stations and a daily newspaper in each of the nation’s largest markets. Broadcasters are currently limited to owning two TV stations, and only in larger markets. Existing rules also bar them from acquiring daily newspapers.
Another of the chairman’s proposals, according to sources, would permit broadcasters to own two TV stations in markets with anywhere from four to six independent TV stations (depending on market size), including PBS outlets, with the caveat that only one of the merged stations could be among the market’s four top-rated stations.
Industry sources said the proposal would effectively clear the way for duopolies at least in the nation’s top 100 markets.