Media ownership rules debate reopened at FCC

The FCC last week decided to revisit media ownership rules — a contentious process that's expected to become a battle royal over the consolidation of corporate ownership of the nation's mass media outlets.

A top priority of Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's agenda has been to allow a company to own a newspaper and a radio or television station that serve the same market, Reuters reported. Martin made it clear last week that he wants to revamp the 1975 ban preventing such cross-ownership.

“The commission should take into account the competitive realities of the media marketplace while also ensuring the promotion of the important goals of localism and diversity,'' Martin said at the FCC's monthly open meeting last Wednesday.

The FCC tried to ease ownership restrictions in 2003, but an appeals court put them on hold, contending the agency failed to justify the limits it set. The public comment period for the re-examination will last four months, and the effort could take at least a year.

The two Democrats on the five-member commission wasted no time in attacking the new effort. Consumer advocates have already formed alliances to lobby against making consolidation easier, arguing it would squeeze out independent voices and reduce local content, Reuters reported.

Michael Copps, a Democratic commissioner and advocate of greater media diversity, said consolidation is growing at an extraordinary rate even under the current rules. He noted that 3300 radio and TV stations have changed hands since the 2003 stay of the new rules.

“Consolidation grows, localism suffers and diversity dwindles,” Copps said. “If we make the wrong decision, our communities will suffer and our country will suffer.”

Other rules to be examined by the FCC include whether a broadcaster should be permitted to own more than one television station in smaller media markets, if a company can own more radio stations in a market and if the FCC should eliminate a rule that prevents two of the top four television networks from being owned by the same company.

New FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who broke with Martin last week on the issue of multichannel must-carry, gave little public clue about his thoughts on media ownership rules. He could be an important swing vote in the rules debate.