FCC’s Genachowski Circulates Media Ownership Order

Details of proposal unclear, but likely to resemble 2007 rules

There was no doubt that the Federal Communications Commission would wait until after the election to deal with the always controversial review of media ownership rules that have been in and out of court since 2008. On Wednesday, the FCC confirmed that chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a proposed order of the rules for a vote among the other four commissioners

The FCC is about two years behind schedule on Congressional requirements that the rules be reviewed every four years.

The commission is not expected to officially reveal details of the order, which are based on a proposed rule-making opened a year ago. But if the order follows the rule-making document, the FCC will essentially keep in place what the agency proposed in 2007—and has been defending in court ever since. In other words, the results would be close to the status quo. The new rules would lift the 70s-era ban on newspaper-radio broadcast cross ownership, codify newspaper-TV-radio combinations in the top 20 markets and maintain local market caps on radio and TV ownership.

Here's how the FCC described it in a statement released Wednesday afternoon: “FCC Chairman Genachowski today shared a proposal with his colleagues to streamline and modernize media ownership rules, including eliminating outdated prohibitions on newspaper-radio and TV-radio cross ownership. As the commission recognized last year, while the media marketplace is in transition, broadband and new media are not yet available as ubiquitously as traditional broadcast media, and certain protections therefore remain important to promoting competition, diversity, and localism.  The proposal promotes media diversity by retaining some of the consolidation limits, and through a number of measures that provide broadcast opportunities for small businesses.”

It's doubtful anyone will be happy with the final order. Broadcasters have all but given up hoping that the FCC would recognize the increased competition from digital media and relax rules passed in the Watergate era. Lobbying heavily in recent weeks, newspapers have been pushing hard for the FCC to loosen newspaper-radio combos, arguing for a more precise cross-ownership waiver standard to increase investment to a depressed medium. Arguing the opposite, consumer and public interest groups maintain that loosening the rules harms democracy by allowing more media consolidation.

The FCC commissioners could render the vote on circulation, or they could vote at the December meeting. (The circulated order came too late to put media ownership rules on the agenda for the monthly meeting Nov. 30). How long that will take is a popular parlor game in Washington. Complicating the timetable, the commissioners  also circulated orders dealing with Tribune Co.'s request (as part of its bankruptcy process) for waivers to own newspapers and TV stations in markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Hartford, Ct.


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