FCC Chairman Proposes to Ease Media Ownership Ban

Nov 13, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin is proposing the FCC conclude its review of media ownership by easing a rule and some of the standards for determining when newspapers and broadcasters can buy each other in the same market, but otherwise make no changes.
The proposal’s announcement was made this morning by Mr. Martin in an op-ed in the New York Times and subsequently in an FCC press release.
The proposal represents a victory of sorts for newspaper publishers who want to buy TV and radio stations, but how big a victory drew debate.
John Sturm, president-CEO of the Newspaper Publishers of America complained the change was “extremely limited and does not go nearly far enough.” He said it applies mainly to big markets and puts newspapers at a disadvantage in limiting them to buying only smaller stations.
Consumer groups, meanwhile, charged that the proposal’s wording could give publishers a far bigger victory that could reshape media in smaller cities.
“If this is what the commission adopts, we will be back in court,” said Andy Schwartzman, director of the Media Access Project, the public interest law firm that overturned the last FCC attempt to write ownership rules. “This will reduce diversity. It is a much more permissive scheme than is presently in effect. It will reduce diversity in media markets throughout the country.”
Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, said that while it offers lofty rhetoric about saving American newspapers and ensuring diversity of voices, the proposed rules “contain a giant loophole that could open the back door to runaway media consolidation in nearly every market. Martin is ignoring overwhelming opposition from the public and Congress to yet another massive giveaway to Big Media.”
In Congress, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., called the proposal “ill-advised” and said it “adds urgency” to his effort to enact legislation requiring the FCC to conduct a separate proceeding on the impact local ownership has on TV content.
Martin’s proposal is a major loss for owners of smaller market stations who had hoped the FCC would let them buy additional stations in their market.
Mr. Martin’s only suggestion of change is in the 32-year-old cross-ownership rule that now bans cross-ownership. He proposed it be amended to generally allow combinations in the top 20 media markets and, under certain circumstances, allow combinations in other markets as well.
In the top 20 markets, a newspaper owner could buy and own a TV station or radio station, but not any of the market’s top four, with the ranking defined by ratings from 9 a.m. to midnight.
In smaller markets, the FCC would allow combinations only under limited circumstances.
Consumer groups charged the new “limits” would in fact let newspaper owners obtain waivers far more easily than they can now and warn it could produce a rush of consolidation.
At an afternoon news conference, Mr. Martin rejected that interpretation, calling it “inaccurate.” He said the FCC would review waiver requests case by case, but media in smaller markets would have a pretty tough time meeting the FCC’s new test for a purchase.
Mr. Sturm, meanwhile, complained that the FCC limits would make buying stations next to impossible, unfairly limiting newspapers to buying the fifth station in a market and in smaller markets contingent on a waiver.
“They are imposing a real burden. Any other buyer is going to have a leg up,” he said.
12:35 a.m.: Updated throughout


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