The Federal Communications Commission yesterday proposed eliminating or substantially easing a 30-year-old rule that limits the number of television and radio stations one owner can hold.
The so-called "Seven Station" rule has long been considered among the most sacrosanct of federal regulations over the broadcasting industry, and the FCC's move was applauded by network officials and the National Association of Broadcasters, who consider it an arbitrary and obsolete restriction.
Opponents, however, charged that the commission had caved in to industry lobbying and opened the door for the networks and other "media conglomerates" to buy up independent stations. In a bitter dissent, Commissioner Henry M. Rivera called the action a "radical" departure from the agency's traditional "bedrock" policy of preventing media concentration and promoting a diversity of voices over the airwaves.
The rule forbids any single media group from owning more than seven television stations (including five VHF stations); seven FM radio stations, or seven AM stations. Thus, the three networks--ABC, NBC, and CBS--each own only five television stations, while their 200 affiliates are independently owned.
By a 3-1 vote, the commission proposed adopting a new rule that would abolish the seven-station limit or significantly modify it, either by raising the numerical limit or using some other index, such as market concentration, to restrict levels of ownership. The commission will take final action after a 90-day public comment period.
Chairman Mark S. Fowler, a Reagan appointee who has declared deregulation of the airwaves to be his top priority, left little doubt that his own preference is for total elimination of the rule, a preference that Rivera charged was "blatantly" evident in the way the proposal was phrased.
"It's the networks and the big multi-owners--that's who's been pushing for this," said Rivera. "We're not talking about regulating toasters. We're talking about regulating the information that flows to the American people . . . This has profound implications."
"The rule is one of the dinosaurs of our regulatory jungle," Fowler said in an interview later. "I think the burden is on those who want to retain it rather than rely on those laws that we've traditionally relied on in other industries, such as the antitrust laws."
According to Fowler and FCC staff members, the industry has changed so dramatically since 1953 when the rule was adopted that the old seven-station limit no longer makes sense. The total number of FM radio stations has grown from 686 to 4,532 during the 30-year period, for example, while the number of TV stations has jumped from 199 to 1,127.
Moreover, the emergence of cable and stronger independent stations has lessened rather than increased concentration of ownership, they argue. "It's an incredibly unconcentrated industry compared to, say, the cereal industry or other major industrial sectors," said Steven Bookshester, an FCC lawyer who drafted the proposed rule.
Fowler, who acknowledged that representatives of major media groups had asked him to change the rule, argued yesterday that its elimination could foster the formation of new regional networks and more independent programming that would compete with the three networks.
But critics charged that it would be mostly already profitable media organizations that would benefit from the change, resulting in even more programming uniformity for the public.
"The greatest danger is going to be to the little mom-and-pop radio stations who will be the first ones to be swept up by a few large station owners, and will then be turned into automated, uniform stations," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm. "Then they'll move on to buying bigger and better things."
Yesterday's action represents one of the most significant of the FCC's deregulatory efforts under Fowler, a 41-year-old former radio announcer and communications lawyer who has argued repeatedly that broadcasters should be as free from federal controls as newspaper and magazine publishers.
His policies have stirred intense controversy in the Congress, however. Yesterday, the House telecommunications subcommittee voted 10 to 4 to forbid the FCC from proceeding with its plan to lift existing rules that now bar the television networks from owning any financial interest in the syndication of programs they broadcast. The rules, which Fowler has categorized as yet another unnecessary regulation on programming, have been a target of the networks, while they have been supported by Hollywood producers, writers and actors.
After a furious lobbying battle, the House Appropriations Committee also voted 26 to 25 on Wednesday to deny the FCC funding to implement the rule change.