Media Ownership Rules in Limbo

The Prometheus Radio Project was back in court Thursday, hoping to convince a panel of three federal judges to crank-up the way back machine and reverse the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to loosen the ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership.

The cross-ownership rule, which dates back to 1975—before the days of cable and the Internet—was last altered in 2007, to allow a single company to own both a newspaper and a radio or TV station in the top 20 markets.

Prometheus Radio Project, along with other consumer groups, first took on the FCC’s media ownership rules in 2003, when the FCC tried to lift the cross-ownership ban, as well as raise the TV and radio ownership caps. Taking issue with the FCC’s methodology, the court remanded the rules back to the commission, telling it to try again.

As it has since 2003, Prometheus Radio Project argued that the relaxed rule would pave the way for more media consolidation. Broadcasters, pointing to the increasing competition from new platforms, argued that the FCC’s rules—including other ownership regulations that govern TV duopolies and radio ownership—should be relaxed even further. The FCC, meanwhile, was there to defend its right to change the rules either way.

The court could take months to render a decision, said Andy Schwartzman, senior vice president and policy director for Media Access Project, who argued for the plaintiffs.

It was difficult to tell during the two and half hours of oral argument how Judges Thomas Ambro, Anthony Scirica, Julio Fuentes—all of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia—might rule. All three spent a lot of time asking questions about the impact of the rules on minority ownership and diversity in the media.

Meanwhile, the case stands in the way of the FCC’s already-delayed 2010 quadrennial review of media ownership rules. The FCC started the process last year, ordering up nine studies of the media marketplace to be delivered in April or May. It could be the fall before the FCC begins a rulemaking process.

“This leaves the FCC with little guidance about how to proceed,” said Schwartzman. “When things are in doubt, the tendency of the FCC is to do nothing.”