Local TV

Editorial: No Hard, or Fast, Rules

3/29/2010 05:38:00 PM Eastern

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has finally had it
with the FCC’s timetable for producing, or in this
case not producing, regulatory certainty in its mediaownership
rules. The court last week lifted its stay on
the FCC’s modest deregulatory revision of the rules,
and said it would hear arguments from both industry leaders and
activists on why they opposed that change.

When the FCC decided in 2007 to only loosen the newspaper-broadcast
cross-ownership rules, it was a decision that seemed to
please nobody. Broadcasters and newspaper owners said it was not
enough relief from a regime that prevented them from getting together
to survive and hopefully prosper with combined resources
and cost-saving synergies. Media consolidation foes complained
that even so modest a deregulation proposal was too much.

It has been almost 2½ years, and broadcasters still don’t know
where they stand. The new FCC majority doesn’t seem to like the
2007 decision either, and now the court has compelled it to act.

With the stay lifted, broadcasters have a window of opportunity
to combine with newspapers in the top 20 markets, but only those
with a single property. The FCC or the court could eventually
overturn the loosened rules,
but broadcasters who buy now
would likely get to keep their
new combos, unless the FCC
conditioned the purchase on
the court’s eventual decision on
the challenges. Once again, so
much for regulatory certainty.

Lifting the stay probably
won’t create a land rush for
newspaper-broadcast combos
in top markets. Arguably, the
smaller-market stations are
more in need of creating multi-platform distribution systems. But
the FCC still denies those stations the ability to combine.

The real good news is that the court will now hear arguments
on why loosening cross-ownership rules did not go far enough.
Broadcasters will be armed not only with the economic realities
of declining ad fortunes, but also with the new-tech reality that
multi-platform models of delivery are the accepted currency of
the digital age.

Back when the Third Circuit remanded the more deregulatory
rule changes under then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the court
was not buying the argument that cable and the Internet should
count as competitive media voices.

That would seem tough to ignore this time around, particularly
since the FCC is billing broadband as the new medium of choice
for content delivery, access to government information and comment
on public issues, such as FCC proposals. It seems to us the
FCC can’t have it both ways. If broadband is the marquee medium
for everything from video delivery to social and government interaction,
the FCC needs to transform its media-ownership rules
to take that into account.