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FCC Chief Offers New Plan on Cross-Ownership

Changing Media Markets
SOURCE: Nielsen | The Washington Post - November 14, 2007

Martin said his plan was designed to grant relief to newspapers, now in worse shape than they were in 2003, while addressing the concerns of anti-consolidation forces.

"We sought a compromise that could accommodate both sides," he said in a conference call. "I think this is a balanced approach that addresses concerns about the impact newspapers do have in their markets, and the largest television stations, too, while rightfully addressing the financial issues faced by newspapers."

Although the FCC does not regulate newspaper ownership, it is part of the agency's charge to ensure a variety of local outlets for news and information.

The Newspaper Association of America, the trade group that represents the nation's newspapers, repeated its contention that cross-ownership should not be banned.

"The fundamental issues he raises concerning the vitality of newspapers and assuring that local news remains available to the public in print and in broadcast are not confined to the top 20 markets," said John F. Sturm, president of the association. "The radical and irreversible market changes that have occurred in every community since this rule was adopted more than 30 years ago have extinguished any basis for this across-the-board ban."

In addition to limiting cross-ownership to the largest markets, Martin's proposal would:

¿ Allow a newspaper to own either a television station or radio station, but not both, in the same market.

¿ Permit a newspaper to buy a TV station only if the deal would leave at least eight other independently owned newspapers or television stations in the city.

¿ Prohibit a newspaper from buying one of the top-four rated television stations in a city.

Martin needs two other votes from the agency's five commissioners for his plan to pass. Two of them, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, opposed it yesterday, calling the proposal a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Both argue that the proposal would make it easy for a newspaper in markets outside the top-20 to receive an FCC waiver to buy a television station.

"This is the camel's nose under the tent," Copps said. "When the industries have pushed hard, the history of this commission is to give a receptive ear."

William Dean Singleton, chief executive of Media News, one of the nation's largest newspaper chains, based in Denver, had hoped to buy television stations in markets where he owned newspapers in 2003 but had to abandon those plans when the court remanded the rules. Martin's proposal wouldn't help him buy stations or aid local news, he said.

"I think the commission missed the boat," Singleton said. "It's the smaller markets that are losing television news" and need the relief of cross-ownership, he said.

As an example, Singleton cited Farmington, N.M., where he owns a paper. The last local television news broadcast signed off this year, he said, because the station could no longer afford a news operation.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) introduced legislation this month designed to postpone the Dec. 18 vote by requiring a 90-day public comment period on any proposed FCC rule changes.

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