Here's a shocker: The Federal Communications Commission's proceeding on media ownership rules is now officially on hold pending an impact study on how cross-ownership affects minority ownership. It could be late spring, even summer, before the proceeding, already two years behind schedule, starts rolling again.
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski made the decision to delay the proceeding Tuesday, a day after the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council in a filing with the agency offered to conduct and pay for the independent study.
"This is a big day for civil rights," said David Honig, the executive director of the MMTC. "We knew the FCC would consider our request, but we didn't think they would act so fast."
The study may have been just what Genachowski needed to get out from under, or at least delay, a proceeding that was going nowhere. From the moment Genachowski proposed the draft order in November, he found himself caught in a tug of war between the two Democratic commissioners who wanted a study on how the changes might impact minorities and the two GOP commissioners who wanted looser rules. And with media ownership rules a constant magnet for litigation, the MMTC's request made a lot of sense.
"In this heavily litigated area where a strong record is particularly important, I believe this is a sensible approach to moving forward and resolving the issues raised in this proceeding," Genachowski said in a statement.
The draft order called for the FCC to lift the ban on owning a newspaper and radio station in a market, but keep the cross-ownership ban on newspaper and TV outside the top 20 markets and the ownership cap on the number of TV and radio stations.
BIA/Kelsey will conduct the study for the MMTC via interviews with current and former minority owners. It is expected to take about eight weeks, followed by an FCC public comment period. That could take another month, or even longer. Genachowski could alter his draft based on the study or keep the draft as is.
Even the study will be controversial. Free Press, one of the groups that has consistently fought against any relaxation of media ownership rules and has accused the FCC of rushing to relax them, said the selection of BIA/Kelsey to conduct the research gave the group "pause" because of BIA/Kelsey's "close ties to the broadcast lobby," namely the National Association of Broadcasters.
"We wouldn’t presume to judge any study before it is completed, but the work of researchers with long-standing ties to the broadcast industry is no substitute for independent, peer-reviewed research. Based on our understanding of this qualitative study's methodology, however, we have serious concerns about its ability to provide useful information," said Matt Wood, director of Free Press in a statement.
The controversy is all par for the course when it comes to media ownership rules. This is the second time since Genachowski circulated the draft order that he's been forced to delay the proceeding. The first delay was last December at the request of commissioner Mignon Clyburn (D), who asked that the FCC open up a comment period on the FCC's study showing that minority ownership of broadcast properties remains dismally low. Clyburn argued that a more thorough impact study was required by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in July 2011 that the FCC needed stronger analysis to back up its rules.
"The commission is in need of data that will enable it to make timely, smart and forward-looking decisions while taking into account America's changing media landscape," Clyburn said in a statement, referring to the pending study.
Both GOP commissioners have faulted the FCC for dragging its feet on the quadrennial review of media ownership rules and upholding rules that date back to the days of Watergate. As commissioner Ajit Pai quipped last week during the Federal Bar Communications Association luncheon, "It's time we put the quad back in quadrennial."
Commissioner Robert McDowell (R), who has made no secret of his belief that the rules are outdated, said he would go along with the delay but hoped it would be the last. "Although I firmly believe that the record regarding the commission’s newspaper/broadcast and radio/television cross-ownership policies more than sufficiently justifies the immediate elimination of these outdated rules, I respect adhering to a prudent process that allows for the submission of the proposed Minority Media and Telecommunications Council study, along with expedient but adequate public comment. Not only did Congress intend for us to eliminate obsolete rules once more competition becomes evident, but it also meant for us to act with alacrity in our review. Accordingly, it is my hope that this most recent pause in our progress on this front is our last.”