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Multicasting may hold the key to acceptable FCC media ownership rules

The FCC media ownership road show visited Harrisburg, PA, Feb. 23 giving the commissioners a third exposure to the public as it progresses on its latest evaluation of media ownership rules.

During the Harrisburg event, FCC chairman Kevin Martin raised the possibility that DTV multicasting technology might help solve what critics of media consolidation see as a consequence of greater media concentration: a restriction of diverse, local voices in the media. One idea, Martin said, is to allow small, independently owned businesses to become broadcasters by leasing an existing broadcaster's spectrum to distribute programming.

"Conversion to digital operations enables broadcasters to fit a single channel of analog programming into a smaller amount of spectrum," Martin said. "Often, there is additional spectrum left over that can be used to air other channels of programming."

These businesses could use "a portion of existing broadcasters' digital spectrum to operate their own broadcast channel." The new broadcasters would then take on "the accompanying rights and obligations of other broadcast stations, such as public interest obligations and carriage rights," he said.

According to the chairman, the commission ownership rules are intended to further competition, diversity and localism. The spectrum leasing idea may advance those goals while accommodating "competitive realities of the media marketplace."

During the Harrisburg meeting, commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein criticized efforts by Martin's predecessor Michael Powell to reform the FCC's media ownership rules.

Saying he would work to prevent "a repeat of the Powell near-catastrophe," Copps said, "We should revisit the bad old rules that got us into this mess in the first place." The commission needs to "restore meaningful public interest responsibilities on our broadcast media," he said. The FCC should put in place a licensing system where licenses aren't awarded automatically but judges whether "a license-holder is really doing its job to serve the common good," he said.

Alternately, the commission should ensure "that all that new digital multi-cast capability we're giving broadcasters returns something positive for our communities and local talent and civic issues coverage," he said.