FCC Opens Ownership Review

WASHINGTON Partisan tensions flared here yesterday as federal regulators began a sweeping review of rules that limit corporations’ ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers.

Acting for the first time since a federal court rejected previous rules, the Federal Communications Commission requested comments on local ownership limits for radio and TV, the ban on daily newspapers owning nearby broadcast stations and other issues.

The last time the FCC considered such matters it encountered a firestorm, with 3 million public comments and two votes by the U.S. Senate to reverse its 2003 decision to loosen the rules. In 2004, a federal appeals court rejected the rules and sent them back to the agency.

On Wednesday, agency Democrats said the FCC should promise substantive studies and public hearings, and should reveal its proposed new rules for public comment before voting on them.

Democrats also warned against splitting off parts of the rules for separate votes—a fate some speculate may lie in store for the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban, which has been singled out for criticism by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican.

“The manner in which the commission is launching this critical proceeding is totally inadequate,” said commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat. “The large media companies wanted, and they get, a blank check to permit further media consolidation.”

Martin said the proceeding was designed to be “neutral and evenhanded.”

“It could be my dissenting colleagues who are rushing to judgment today,” Martin said. “I think they want to grade our performance and give us an ‘F,’ but it’s only the first day of class.”

Martin promised “a half-dozen” public hearings and studies on topics including how the public gets its news, competition and recent marketplace changes.

The meeting was the first with three Republicans since Martin moved up to become chairman early last year. An attempt to begin the media ownership proceeding last year ended in partisan deadlock, over many of the same issues discussed Wednesday.

As usual, the FCC set no date for a vote. It established a comment cycle that runs for 120 days, or at least into late October. Some FCC officials do not expect a vote until next year.

National TV ownership limits are not at issue, since Congress set them amid the controversy over the 2003 rules.

The FCC earlier backed away from voting on forcing cable operators to carry all of each broadcasters’ multiple digital programs, saying it could not form a consensus.