FCC Pushes Out Media Ownership Rules

Proposal codifies newspaper-TV combos held by Tribune and News Corp.

Once again, the Federal Communications Commission decided to move forward a major regulatory rule just before the holidays. Last year at this time, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski annoyed GOP lawmakers and even some of his fellow commissioners with the vote to pass net neutrality.

This year, to give outgoing commissioner Michael Copps one last chance to rail against media consolidation, the FCC circulated and voted on a notice of proposed rule making on broadcast media ownership rules. One communications attorney said the timing of the release was "consistent with their past practices when wanting to bury an item."

As expected, the proposed rule changes released by the FCC on Thursday left everyone unsated; the changes were just enough to disappoint media owners and leave public interest groups (and Copps) unsatisfied. The proposed rules would keep in place the loosening of the ban on cross-ownership proposed by former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, allowing companies to own both a newspaper and TV station in the top 20 markets.

The proposal would essentially codify newspaper-TV combos held by companies such as Tribune and News Corp. The FCC is proposing no change to the current TV duopoly rules, which permit companies to own only two stations in a market as long as both outlets are among the top four, or the radio ownership regulations.

Public interest groups, which have challenged loosening the ban on cross ownership in court came out swinging. "It appears that the FCC is proposing to adopt the same loophole-ridden scheme that the Bush administration FCC had tried to push through. The public understands that excessive concentration of media ownership is bad for democracy, so we expect to convince the FCC to take a stronger position in the end," said Andy Schwartzman, svp, Media Access Project.

The one thing public interest groups were happy about was the one thing broadcasters were not: keeping the TV duopoly rules in place. "NAB supports elimination of the broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership rules because we believe journalism jobs could be saved under that scenario. We also support relief from TV duopoly rules to help sustain news and public affairs programming at struggling TV stations. Given the explosion of media outlets, we believe nearly 40-year-old ownership rules that restrict free and local broadcasting ought to be reformed to reflect today’s hypercompetitive marketplace," said Gordon Smith, CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters.

The FCC is already way behind in taking up the 2010 quadrennial review of the rules required by Congress. Ever controversial, the FCC has been in and out of court defending media ownership rules and various changes to them for several years. In part, the notice of proposed rule making released Thursday was in response to the ruling this summer by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.