Full Commission Gets Down to Business

The collegial chit-chat preceding the first meeting of a full commission in more than a year belied the aspersion-casting to come. After a quick huddle with fellow Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein, Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell; Michael Copps let fly at the way yet another media ownership proceeding was about to be undertaken.

"We all know that in 2003, the FCC tried to eliminate important safeguards that protected media diversity, localism and competition," Copps said. "A majority of commissioners approved stunning-there is no other word for it-rules that would allow one corporation to own, in a single community, up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the only daily newspaper and the biggest Internet provider. How can it be good for our country to invest such sweeping power in one media mogul or one giant corporation?"

The rules subsequently stunned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit into remanding them two years ago, but on the basis of math rather than media moguldom. The FCC's analysis of media concentration was based on values assigned to various media outlets, times marketshare, times mystery integers from the Federal Trade Commission. The court sent the commissioners back to the Portals to check their math, but it was otherwise okey-dokey with loosening up media ownership restrictions.

In this most recent proceeding on media ownership, adopted June 21, the FCC seeks to respond to the court as well as launch the biennial review required by Congress. It will also consider whether or not to abandon the dual network ban that enjoins one company from owning more than one broadcast network.

The rules up for review involve the number of TV stations owned by one company in a given market. Ditto that for radio; and cross-ownership of radio, TV and newspapers in a market; as well as the UHF discount on the national TV ownership cap (stations reaching 39 percent of the market).

The rules adopted in 2003, and halted by the court, allowed one company to own two TV outlets in markets with five or more stations, and three in markets with 18 or more (including noncommercial stations), as long as only one was rated among the top four. Cross-ownership was allowed in markets with more than three TV stations.

Copps fought the 2003 rulemaking tooth and nail because he said it didn't adequately consider localism or public hearings, and because the new rules weren't opened to comment before they were codified. He dissented in part to the current rulemaking because he said it didn't close those same holes.

"The American people have a right to expect more from this commission than they got from the previous one," he said.

Adelstein, Copps' fellow Democrat, also dissented in part for similar reasons. Both have long flogged the pony of localism as it relates media ownership. Yet both concurred in part to the proceeding because the rules have been in limbo for years now, leaving quite a few media companies in the lurch on Wall Street.

The June 21 meeting represented the first full commission vote since Kevin Martin became chairman more than a year ago, and the very first vote for McDowell, who was confirmed late last month.

Having a commission evenly split between Republicans and Democrats hasn't been an easy row for Martin to hoe. Meetings have routinely been pushed back (as was this one), and items have often disappeared from the agenda, often at the last minute. One notable disappearance from the June agenda was multicast must-carry. Reports that a multicast must-carry vote was imminent swirled like snowflakes in a blizzard before the June meeting sunshine notice was released. Martin voiced the lone partial dissent on the 2005 vote that reaffirmed that must-carry applied to one audio/video stream only, defying his fellow Republican, former Chairman Michael Powell. Martin said at the time that the expansion of free TV was in the public interest.

With his very first Republican majority, the time appeared ripe to revisit multicast must-carry. However, in the week before the meeting, sources indicated McDowell's vote was not a sure thing. The item was pulled from the agenda Sunday evening before the meeting.

"The Federal Communications Commission announced that its proposed order regarding cable carriage of digital broadcast signals will not be considered at the commission's June 21st monthly agenda meeting," a notice from the FCC read. "There did not appear to be consensus for moving forward at this time," said FCC spokeswoman Tamara Lipper.

McDowell did, however, roll with Martin on media ownership, as did Tate. The chairman was careful not to flout his majority on that one, considering the goosing he got on multicast must-carry. Copps and Adelstein have alluded that specified public interest obligations would make multicast must-carry more palatable. Thus Martin was noticeably conciliatory toward the Democrats on the media ownership vote. Frequently facing Copps and Adelstein, who now flank him on the dais, Martin said that he would indeed rolled the localism into the proceeding.

"As the item indicates, the commission will look carefully at the relationship between media ownership and localism as it moves forward with this rulemaking," he said. "To that end, the commission will incorporate into this proceeding the efforts undertaken on this issue since the last examination of our media ownership rules."
He noted that the comment period had been extended to 120 days, and a new Web page was in the works to further encourage public input.

The proceeding also called for six public hearings. Copps wanted twice that number, but Martin reminded him that there was only so much dough in the FCC till. Copps was also critical of the studies used for the previous rulemaking, many of which came from industry sources. The current proceeding allotted $200,000 for independent studies, and Martin told his colleagues, "We will seek the resources necessary for comprehensive studies."

More information on the proceeding is available at the FCC Web site under "FCC Opens Media Ownership Proceeding for Public Comment."