FCC Sets Launch for Review of Ownership Rules

Jun 30, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Firing off the starting gun for a new debate over media ownership deregulation, the Federal Communications Commission is slated to launch a proceeding July 14 seeking input to help it determine what to do about controversial rules that limit the ability of companies to buy broadcast stations and daily newspapers, FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said Thursday.

The agency’s previous major effort to loosen the rules was shot down in the courts. With its recent refusal to review the lower court decision that overturned the agency’s deregulation moves, the Supreme Court handed the issue back to the FCC. At briefing in her office, Ms. Abernathy told reporters the new review will be “very open and broad” and is unlikely to result in any concrete changes for a year or more. “It’s going to be a very basic request for comment,” she said.

As currently drafted, the commissioner said, the proceeding includes the full package of broadcast-related rules under review, including a rule that bars broadcasters from buying daily newspapers in their markets.

Of all the rules at issue, Ms. Abernathy said, she believes the newspaper rule warrants particular attention because some companies — including Tribune and Media General — have merged daily newspapers with broadcast stations in anticipation of deregulation. According to the commissioner, the companies need to know whether they will have to divest. “These folks need clarity,” she said. But don’t expect to see action on any controversial issues until Kevin Martin, the FCC’s new Republican chairman, has a full complement of commissioners and a GOP majority on board, she said.

The FCC’s two Democrats — Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein — have made clear that they want the FCC’s new media ownership review to include public hearings, giving them forums to vent their opposition to deregulation.

Said Ms. Abernathy, “That [whether to hold public hearings] will be determined by the chairman’s office.” Ms. Abernathy also told reporters that she plans to remain at the agency “for the foreseeable future” even though her term expired last year and she has made clear that she doesn’t want a new term.

Under a loophole in the law, she said, she can continue at the agency until Congress adjourns at the end of the year. She also said that the hope at the agency is that the White House will nominate new commissioners soon. Getting the new commissioners is particularly important for Mr. Martin because it will give him a GOP majority.

As it stands, the FCC, which is authorized for five commissioners, has only four on board — two Democrats and two Republicans. “I know the White House is working hard,” Ms. Abernathy said.