Groups Weigh In to FCC on Media Ownership

Oct 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Broadcasters on Monday urged the Federal Communications Commission to recognize how competition has changed over the past 30 years and ease media ownership rules, while consumer groups said changes aren’t warranted.

In an outpouring of filings on the last date the FCC is to accept comments on its media ownership rule re-examination, all sides are pulling out all the stops.

The National Association of Broadcasters contended that TV stations’ deteriorating financial condition threatens their viability and that FCC rules restricting duopolies fails to take account of other competition and called a rule preventing companies from owning newspapers and broadcasters in a market “anachronistic.” The group suggested many current FCC rules no longer rest on a firm foundation.

“In a multi-channel environment dominated by consolidated cable and satellite system operators, broadcasters are clearly unable to obtain and exercise any undue market power,” NAB said in its filing. “For this reason, the traditional rationale for maintaining a regulatory regime applicable only to local broadcasters and not their competitors is not a proper basis for keeping the current rules.”

It urged the FCC to “structure its local ownership rules so that traditional broadcasters and newer programming distributors can all compete on an equitable playing field” and ease rules so that markets of all sizes can more easily form duopolies.

CBS Corp. noted the impact of YouTube, Google and the iPod just since the FCC’s last look at competition and warned that broadcasters are being “hobbled” by government regulation.

“The pace of change in the media marketplace is breathtaking and it is only accelerating,” it said. “Regulations tailored to the marketplace conditions of what is, relatively speaking, ancient history, have little relevance in today’s rapidly evolving and immensely varied media environment. … Without some form of relief to allow broadcasters to compete effectively, [broadcasters’ contributions] are put in ever-increasing jeopardy.”

Sinclair Broadcast Group urged the FCC to move full speed ahead with revamping its rules but in the meantime start immediately processing waivers for duopolies and ownerships not allowed by its current rules.

“When the commission does address its rules, it must acknowledge that there is no logical or scarcity-based justification for any restrictions on local television ownership,” the filing said.

Consumer groups warned an easing would lead to a “dumbing down” of the public, arguing that an appellate court ruling they won that forced the FCC re-examination makes clear the FCC’s duty is to ease rules only if doing so can clearly be shown to be in the public interest.

“The commission should not simply consider the effects on the industry’s competitive edge in the marketplace. Rather, the commission must place a greater emphasis on whether the public is actually being served by a diversity of voices,” said a filing from a coalition of the Prometheus Radio Project, Common Cause, the Media Alliance and the Center for Digital Democracy, among other groups. “It is imperative that the commission seriously weigh the benefits of the current rules to employ a diversity of voices.”

Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of American and Free Press in a separate filing said that despite changes in technology, “Most people still rely on their local newspapers and local television stations as their most important sources of local news.” The groups said those sources have a disproportionate impact on public opinion and that their further consolidation would be “highly problematic.”

A number of groups commenting had yet to show up Monday on the FCC’s comment system.

Rick Cotton, executive VP and general counsel for NBC Universal, said his company’s filing would question whether rules drawn years ago fit today’s competitive market when the majority of local advertising is sold on cable, competition between broadcasters and cable for eyeballs is intensifying and local news infrastructure is growing more expensive.

“Simply leaving the current regulations in place can’t be the right answer,” he said.