The Bush administration yesterday abandoned plans to ask the Supreme Court to allow a set of controversial rules to take effect that would have loosened restrictions on how large media conglomerates could grow.
The decision disappointed big media companies that had lobbied heavily in support of the rules and thrilled those who had fought to keep tighter rein on how much control one company should have over television, newspapers and radio stations in individual markets.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein called the rules legally flawed.
Court Rejects Rules On Media Ownership (The Washington Post, Jun 25, 2004)
Compromise Puts TV Ownership Cap at 39% (The Washington Post, Nov 25, 2003)
Senate Votes to Block FCC Media Rules (The Washington Post, Sep 17, 2003)
Panel Fires Shot Across FCC's Bow (The Washington Post, Sep 5, 2003)
FCC Releases Its New Media Ownership Rules (The Washington Post, Jul 3, 2003)
The Federal Communications Commission, which had adopted the proposed rules in a hotly contested, 3 to 2, party-line vote in June 2003, now must decide whether to start anew on rules governing media consolidation or to re-argue its case before a lower court that the current proposals should be approved.
The chief architect of the rules, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, has announced that he will leave in March, so the next step will be guided by his successor, who has not yet been named.
The rules would have allowed television networks such as CBS and Fox to buy a few more television stations nationally and let one company own the biggest newspaper and highest-rated television station in most cities. They also would have allowed individual companies to own more television stations in the same city and restricted how many radio stations one company could own, locally and nationally.
After consulting with FCC officials, the Justice Department informed the agency yesterday that it would not pursue an appeal of a lower court decision to stay the rules.
Media giants NBC Universal, Viacom Inc. (owner of CBS), News Corp. (Fox, New York Post) and Tribune Co. (Los Angeles Times, several other papers and television stations) said they will ask the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court's decision. But the court has been reluctant to take such cases if they are lead by an industry rather than a government agency, lawyers say.
"Now that the government is not involved, there is significantly less of a chance" the court will take it up, said Howard M. Liberman, a media lawyer with Washington's Drinker Biddle.
In September 2003, the day before the rules were set to go into effect, they were stayed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia. The court said that the FCC had not done a satisfactory job of justifying how it drew them up. The court did not rule on the merits of the regulations and left open the possibility that it would approve them if they were better argued.
The rules were opposed by a broad coalition of interest groups and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who said that they would give a handful of media conglomerates too much influence over the airwaves, reducing diversity of views and possibly creating monopoly advertising markets.