FCC to Revisit Media-Ownership Rules

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Federal Communications Commission voted yesterday to take up the controversial topic of media ownership, two years after the agency's last attempt to craft new rules was tossed out by a federal court.

With yesterday's vote, the FCC said it will attempt to set rules governing the number of radio and television stations that companies can own in one city, cross-ownership between newspapers and television and television and radio, whether one company may own more than one television network and whether UHF stations should count toward total national station ownership.

At stake are issues basic to the modern media marketplace and democratic dialogue. Often, the two are at odds. How many television stations should one company be allowed to own in the same city? Should the biggest newspaper in town own the most popular local television station? Does having a variety of owners ensure a variety of voices? Is there such a thing as too much media power?

"The media-ownership issue is very, very important to a lot of people, and it can be very contentious. I think it's very daunting," said FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin. "On the other hand, the courts have remanded these rules, and we were supposed to respond to them years ago."

However, the media landscape is different today than it was four years ago, when the FCC began the process of revising ownership rules. Then, big companies such as CBS Corp., Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Gannett Co. were clamoring to add more properties.

News Corp. wanted to buy second television stations in cities where it had only one, creating money-saving duopolies like it has in the District, where it owns WTTG (Channel 5) and WDCA (Channel 20). Mel Karmazin, who was president of Viacom Inc. at the time, called it crucial to his company's future that it be allowed to add more high-profit television stations to the CBS chain. And newspaper companies, such as Belo Corp., wanted to purchase more television stations.

Since then, the promises of "corporate synergy" have dimmed, and multimedia companies such as Tribune Co. and Time Warner Inc. are selling pieces of their empires.

Thus, though the FCC is likely to allow some form of television-newspaper cross-ownership, there may be less demand for it now than there was three years ago. Tribune, for instance, appears to be getting out of the television business.

Proponents argue that combining the resources of newspapers and television stations provides better local news to consumers. Opponents say it gives the companies too much sway over local events and opinions. The FCC will take comments on media ownership for four months. Also, the agency will study how consumers get their news, the impact of local ownership, minority participation in ownership and other factors before proposing any new rules.

In 2003 -- in a quarrelsome 3 to 2 vote along party lines -- the five FCC commissioners acted to relax certain ownership rules and tighten others, prompting criticism from lawmakers and interest groups. Opponents filed a suit to block the new rules, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ultimately sent them back to the FCC for retooling. The court did not argue with the rules but said the FCC had done a poor job of justifying them. The court, for instance, agreed that the newspaper-television cross-ownership ban should be lifted.

The architect of the 2003 rules was then-FCC chairman Michael K. Powell. The Republican was criticized, even by some FCC commissioners, for not seeking enough public input. Specifically, Democratic commissioners Jonathan S. Adelstein and Michael J. Copps said the public should have been able to review the proposed rules before the FCC voted on them.

The debate could be just as contentious this time. Yesterday, Adelstein said he was unhappy because he could not secure a commitment from Martin that any rules changes would be revealed to the public before an FCC vote.

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