The new year looks to be business as usual for government regulation of the media, with perennial issues like ownership, indecency and the battle between the telcos and cable companies staying on the agenda.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering relaxing rules that bar broadcast-newspaper ownership in a single market, as well as one company owning more than one TV station in a market. With the Democrats taking control of Congress, the FCC "will be more hesitant to push the regulatory effort than they would have otherwise," said Mark Fratrik, vp, research/industry analysis at BIA Financial Network. Last month, more than 30 media companies, including CBS, NBC, Fox, Gannett, Tribune and Clear Channel, petitioned the FCC to relax 2003's ownership rules. In a letter, they urged the commission to "modernize" its "outmoded" rules. The FCC will continue a series of public forums around the country to gather opinions on changing the rules.
Also this year, the crackdown on indecency over the airwaves could again become a hot topic. In June, Congress increased fines for indecency tenfold, to $325,000 per violation. "The networks have challenged a number of FCC rulings on indecency, and those issues are now in the courts, with a lot of people thinking it will wind its way to the Supreme Court," said Dennis Wharton, evp, media relations for the National Association of Broadcasters. "Perhaps indecency arguments will be more court oriented than congressionally oriented this year."
Meanwhile, the battle between telephone companies pushing to get into video delivery and cable companies working to stop them rages on. The FCC last month approved restrictions on local government interference with cable rivals entering the market. The NAB stated that it "salutes the FCC for taking decisive action to increase much-needed competition to cable monopolies," while the National Cable and Telecommunications Association called into question the FCC's "legal authority to establish separate regimes for incumbents and new entrants" into the video delivery marketplace.
Copyright could also get some play this year, said Wharton. "Copyright issues are only going to increase in importance because of the Web, program content delivery over cell phones [and] Google running broadcast programming." Whether major legislation will be passed is an "open question," he said, "but there will be a lot of hearings and a lot of debate."