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CBS' Hopper Award Knock Could Set Back Media Ownership Rules

Used by public interest group as example of problem with proposal

When CBS torpedoed CNET's planned "best of show" award for Dish's Hopper, it may have also blown to bits broadcasters' best chance for looser media ownership rules at the Federal Communications Commission. In a letter filed today with the FCC, public interest group Public Knowledge says CBS' actions demonstrate unequivocally why the agency should ditch its proposal to loosen the rules, currently under review.

By now, the whole world knows what happened when CBS—which is in a legal dispute with Dish's Hopper—told CNET editorial that it could not bestow the Hopper with the coveted "best in show" award. The order to CNET apparently came down from the top of CBS, from CEO Les Moonves.

A CNET reporter quit over the incident. Dish screamed foul and is now playing it up for all its worth in the press and in a full-page ad that ran this weekend in The Washington Post.

As much as CBS has tried, the controversy just won't go away. Now it's made its way inside the Beltway.

Groups like Public Knowledge, which have never been fond of any loosening of the FCC's media ownership rules, pounced.

"The editorial meddling by CBS in CNET's activities goes directly to the heart of why the commission has media ownership rules in the first place," wrote John Bergmayer, the senior staff attorney for Public Knowledge, in the scathing filing.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has circulated a proposed order to update the rules by lifting the ban on owning a newspaper and radio station in the same market, but retaining the cross-ownership ban between TV stations. The proposed changes are largely the same ones proposed in 2007, but have been challenged in court by the same groups that are stunned by the CBS-CNET incident.

After years of listening to arguments from broadcasters and newspaper companies that consolidation does not mean the elimination of voices, the opponents of loosening media ownership rules now see an opening big enough to drive a Mack truck through.

"This should dispel any notion that ownership does not impact viewpoint diversity. In fact, ownership always will have an effect on the viewpoints of subsidiary media outlets," said Bergmayer, calling into question the editorial integrity of all of CBS editorial, from 60 Minutes to The CBS Evening News, "or any CBS journalistic enterprise whenever the story might ever so tangentially implicate CBS' bottom line."

Even though the FCC has no authority over Internet content, that didn't stop Bergmayer from suggesting that maybe the agency should extend its authority to cover Internet media ownership. "Just as the commission prohibited a local broadcaster from extending its editorial control to a local newspaper and thereby reduce viewpoint diversity, the commission should now consider restricting broadcaster cross-ownership of online media, and whether commission licensees serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity when they interfere with the editorial independence of their subsidiaries."

Privately, broadcasters are concerned the incident could work against them with the chairman and the two Democratic commissioners. Said one broadcast lobbyist: "It doesn't look good."

CBS was not immediately available for comment.

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