The last thing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to talk about are the media ownership rules. With the exception of a fleeting mention of media ownership, Genachowski has said very little about the 2010 quadrennial review of the rules required by Congress.
But time is running out. If the FCC doesn't get to the rules soon, it will slam right into the election, making ownership rules an even more toxic political issue at the time when local politicians count most on their local media outlets.
Genachwoski's solution is to keep the proceedings as quiet as he can, and the end of the year is the perfect time to do that. So without any announcement, early this month Genachowski began circulating a draft of a notice for proposed rulemaking to address the required review. Since the draft is being handled "on circulation," chances are the NPRM will be voted on and released for comment without a public meeting. Only the final order would be voted on during a public meeting early next year.
"[Media ownership] has been delayed multiple times; it's not a high priority of the commission, but they have to do it," said John Hane, counsel for Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, which represents several broadcast clients. "They're not keeping people in the loop on this because if the details are leaked, people will lobby the hell out of it."
Most observers expect the FCC to take the easy way out and propose no radical changes to the rules passed in 2006, which allowed broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership in the top 20 markets. The commission is also unlikely to relax the limits on radio and TV ownership in local markets.
Genachowski may not get to handle this as quietly as he'd like. Public interest groups that have fought any changes to the media ownership rules before are getting ready to do it again. "They are supposedly going to keep the same cross-ownership rules that [former FCC Chairman] Kevin Martin adopted that is riddled with loopholes," said Andy Schwartzman, the president of the Media Access Project, which successfully convinced the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to remand the cross-ownership rules back to the FCC. "We would fight it very hard."
Even if Genachowski's draft proposes few or no changes, he still has to convince commissioner Michael Copps, who has only weeks left at the FCC, to sign on. A staunch opponent of media consolidation and the loosening of media ownership rules, Copps could argue that Genachowski's draft doesn't roll back ownership rules enough. On the opposite end, commissioner Robert McDowell could hold out for more deregulation.
"What Genachowski circulated doesn't mean that's what the NPRM will be. He has to get those two other votes. To the extent he is deregulating at all, he could lose Copps' vote," said Jack Goodman, a lawyer with his own firm who has broadcast clients.
"I'm not optimistic there will be anything meaningful in there. But the good news is we're only two years away from the next review," Hane said.