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FCC eases cross-ownership rule by 3-2 vote

The FCC voted 3-2 Tuesday to ease 32-year-old rules preventing cross-ownership of daily newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same market.

The vote, which fell along party lines, will allow cross-ownership of daily newspapers and broadcast outlets in the top 20 markets under certain circumstances. In a statement released after the vote, FCC chairman Kevin Martin said the commission could not “ignore the fact that the media marketplace is considerably different than it was when the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule” was established. Allowing cross-ownership “may help forestall the erosion in local news coverage” by letting them share the cost of local newsgathering across multiple media platforms.

Under the new rule, the commission will presume a proposed merger between a newspaper and a broadcast outlet is in the public interest if it meets certain requirements, including:

  • The market involved is one of the 20 largest Nielsen DMAs.
  • The transaction involves only one major daily newspaper and only one TV or radio station.
  • Where a TV station is involved, eight “independently owned and operating major media voices” defined as major newspapers and full-power TV stations remain in the DMA following the transaction.
  • If a TV station is involved, it must not be among the top four-ranked stations in the DMA.

Other proposed newspaper/broadcast combinations would be considered not to be in the public interest. However, the commission set up two exceptions:

  • Under certain circumstances, those involving failed or failing stations or newspapers as defined by the commission.
  • When the transaction would result in “a new source of local news in a market,” specifically at least seven hours of new local news per week.

The two Democrat commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, voted against the rule change. Copps, called the change “unconnected to good policy and not even incidentally concerned with encouraging media to make our democracy stronger.” The commissioner predicted the approval of mergers in top 20 markets and non-top-20 markets because “the set of exceptions we announce today have all the firmness of a bowl of Jell-O.”

Shortly after the vote House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-MI) criticized the rule change, saying the FCC “acted arrogantly and brazenly” to weaken the restrictions. Dingell said he was “greatly displeased” with FCC chairman Kevin Martin’s decision to vote on the changes “a mere week” after receiving hundreds of pages on the proposed rule change.

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