FCC's Contested Cross-Ownership Rule Set for Vote

Kevin J. Martin's plan faces heat from others in the FCC, Congress and advocacy groups.
Kevin J. Martin's plan faces heat from others in the FCC, Congress and advocacy groups. (By Joe Marquette -- Bloomberg News)
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing ahead to pass a rule today that would allow more consolidation of local media ownership in the nation's largest cities, despite the fresh threat of a legislative rebuke and continued protests from advocacy groups.

The rule, proposed by Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a Republican, has been assailed by members of his own commission, denounced by a unanimous vote of the Senate Commerce Committee and called harmful to media diversity by a number of groups who say Martin is rushing it through without adequate public comment.

However, Martin's action is backed by the White House, which over the weekend successfully headed off a House Democratic attempt to deny the FCC money to implement the new rule, according to a number of sources.

Approval of the media-ownership plan would partially lift a 32-year-old ban that prevents one company from owning a newspaper and television or radio station in the same city. Under Martin's plan, a newspaper could own one television or radio station in the nation's 20 largest media markets, assuming certain conditions are met. A newspaper could not own one of the top-four rated television stations, for instance. Companies such as Tribune and Richmond's Media General have argued for the rule change.

In the nation's approximately 190 other media markets, a company could petition the FCC to allow a merger between a newspaper and broadcast station, but the deal would have to pass tests to be approved. Opponents of the plan say the tests are so vague as to be meaningless.

Martin is showing some compromise on the so-called "cross-ownership" rule. Through yesterday afternoon, he was working with fellow commissioners and advocacy groups to "put some teeth" in the tests, said one FCC official. For instance, Martin suggested that if a newspaper and television station were allowed to merge, the station should have to provide at least six to seven hours of news programming per week to guarantee coverage of local news.

"The agency has a responsibility to grapple with difficult issues," Martin said in an interview yesterday. "This is the only media ownership rule that has never been fully reviewed."

Martin is thought to have the three votes required from the five-person commission to pass the rule, with Republicans Robert M. McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate expected to join him. Democratic commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein plan to vote against it.

"The FCC has never attempted such an act of defiance against Congress," which is threatening to overturn the vote, Adelstein said in an interview yesterday.

Also today, the FCC is expected to approve a national ownership cap on cable companies. Under the proposed rule, no cable company could have more than 30 percent of all U.S. cable subscribers. Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, has 27 percent.

Martin has called the existing cross-ownership rule, enacted before the rise of cable and satellite television and the Internet, obsolete and ripe for revision. He is backed by the Newspaper Association of America, the largest trade group of U.S. newspapers. The group says struggling newspapers could be helped by being allowed to buy television stations, whose advertising revenue could help pay for the cost of newsgathering.

Last week, while testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee, Martin was asked by a number of senators to postpone today's vote. Committee member Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) turned up the heat on Martin yesterday with a letter signed by 25 senators -- including Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the committee's vice chairman -- demanding Martin postpone the vote or face the swift drafting of a bill designed to overturn it.

"If you proceed to take final action on this rule on Dec. 18 without having given reasonable opportunity for comment on the actual rules and study the related issues, we will immediately move legislation that will revoke and nullify the proposed rule," the letter reads.

In an interview yesterday, Dorgan said he has pressed Martin for studies on local media, trying to ascertain how many voices each community has. Dorgan thinks it is important to know whether each local television or radio station has a separate voice before the FCC allows further consolidation among them.

"I ask him how much voice-tracking is going on around the country at radio stations," Dorgan said, referring to the money-saving practice of transmitting one broadcast to several radio stations and sometimes suggesting to listeners the broadcasts are local.

Dorgan added, "There are all kinds of voices, but there's one ventriloquist."

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