FCC told to finish study on broadcast localism

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is being pressured by Congress to wrap up a proceeding on media localism before tackling a rewrite of media ownership rules.

The localism initiative, started by former Chairman Michael Powell in August 2003, had a mission to examine how broadcast licensees are serving their local communities. Part of that study involves investigating whether TV stations are providing adequate news and public interest programming.

The localism proceeding is still not complete, and Martin appears to have little enthusiasm to finish the work. The chairman recently indicated in public comments that the commission may abandon the proceeding and take comments collected to date and include them as part of the record in the current proceeding on media ownership rules.

That didn’t sit well with some members of Congress. Last week, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators called for the completion of the localism study before the issue of media ownership rules is addressed.

Martin was told that a “critical component to any changes to the ownership rules is an understanding of the ways in which broadcasters currently are serving their local communities.”

Signing the letter were Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA); Bill Nelson (D-FL); Olympia Snow (R-ME); Maria Cantwell (D-WA); John Kerry (D-MA); Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ); Trent Lott (R-MS); and Mark Pryor (D-AR).

The letter comes as Democrats prepare to take control on Jan. 3 of congressional committees that oversee the FCC in both the House and Senate. Martin, a Republican, is expected to face increased oversight by congressional Democrats in the coming year. An FCC official told the “National Journal” that the agency was reviewing the request by the senators, and that Martin would soon respond in writing.

The broadcast localism issue is part of the continuing political fight over the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few large corporations.

In 2003, Powell, also a Republican, used his majority on the FCC to relax media ownership restrictions. The action triggered a public and congressional backlash that led to a federal appeals court overturning the rules and sending them back to the FCC for reconsideration. That reconsideration proceeding is now underway and is expected to become more contentious with the new Democrat majority in Congress.