FCC set to decide on Media-ownership today
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is pushing ahead for a vote today to pass a rule that would allow more consolidation...
The proposalApproval of the media-ownership plan would partially lift a 32-year-old ban that prevents one company from owning a newspaper and TV or radio station in the same city. Under the plan, a newspaper could own one TV 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 TV stations, for instance.
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is pushing ahead for a vote today to pass a rule 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.
In response to critics of large media consolidation, however, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he will temper his planned relaxation of the rules by making newspaper-broadcast mergers in smaller markets more difficult than under the plan he originally proposed.
More than 200 people signed up to testify at a hearing on the original proposal last month at Seattle's Town Hall, almost all of them in opposition.
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 he is rushing the rule change 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.
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.
Opponents of lifting the cross-ownership ban, including Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, say it would concentrate too much control over local news and information in the hands of too few owners.
In working with fellow commissioners and advocacy groups on the compromise, 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, one FCC official said.
The proposal also would permit a case-by-case review of newspaper-broadcast mergers in smaller markets or those involving bigger TV stations if the deal increased local news coverage or if the newspaper were in "financial distress."
Consumer advocates and FCC Democrats — who generally oppose the entire plan — said allowing such waivers represented a huge loophole that could open the door to mergers anywhere in the United States.
In an interview Monday, Martin said he will propose toughening the waiver criteria. For instance, to be considered for a waiver, a newspaper must have lost money three straight years, and a TV station airing no local news would have to supply at least seven hours a week.
"That's a very high hurdle," Martin said.
Gene Kimmelman, of Consumers Union, said sharply limiting mergers in smaller markets would be "a significant improvement."
Martin is thought to have the three votes required from the five-person commission to pass the rule, with Republicans Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate expected to join him. Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan 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 Monday.
Martin's concessions are not likely to appease lawmakers. In a letter to Martin on Monday, 25 senators, including four Republicans, accused him of whisking the plan through without giving the public enough time to comment. Martin unveiled the proposal Nov. 13.
If he goes ahead with the vote, "we will immediately move legislation that will revoke and nullify the proposed rule," the letter states.
Martin counters that the FCC launched the ownership review 18 months ago. "I think the commission has had a very open and lengthy process," he says.
Passage by Congress of a bill that can withstand a Senate filibuster and likely veto by President Bush is still considered a longshot.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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