Powell Says 'NOI' To Media Localism

But critics hear 'No' on rules rewrite

Michael Powell threw a bone to Americans angry about broadcast-industry consolidation, but his biggest critics weren't biting.

The FCC chairman called in the press last week and gained splashy national coverage for an endeavor that would have garnered barely a mention a year ago: a plan to study whether the FCC should make broadcasters do more to fulfill the programming needs of their local communities.

"We heard the voice of public concern loud and clear," he told a roomful of reporters at FCC headquarters in announcing the NOI, or notice of inquiry, into the issue. "Localism remains a core concern of our public, and it's time the commission addressed it head-on."

Powell's aim was to blunt public complaints that the FCC is turning a blind eye as big media companies shun local programming needs in favor of corporate efficiencies and nationwide feeds of network shows. Once they heard that he wasn't about to stay the June 2 ownership rules, his critics immediately rejected his latest initiative as little more than a time-consuming attempt to thwart congressional efforts to rewrite that relaxation of broadcast-ownership limits.

'Day Late, dollar short'

"It is a very curious strategy for the chairman to change the rules in a way that will dramatically damage localism and then, nearly three months later, propose a process to examine how those rules might affect localism," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), sponsor of a "legislative veto" that would restore the 35% cap on TV-household reach and other ownership restrictions.

Calling the initiative a diversionary tactic, Commissioner Michael Copps also called it "a day late and a dollar short." He has been pushing for more public hearings into broadcasters' local-service and public-interest obligations. Even though public forums are part of Powell's new proposal, Copps was not mollified. "We should have vetted these issues before we voted [on loosening ownership rules]," he said. "This is a policy of 'ready, fire, aim!'"

Powell insists he's charting a sensible course for protecting local interests. Ownership rules are a "clumsy" and indirect way to address the public's complaints about media behavior, he said. "Why take a three-cushion shot on the pool table rather than a shot right at the hole?"

Although he rejected calls to postpone the Sept. 4 effective date of the newly relaxed ownership limits, a stay is still quite possible. Federal appeals judges in Philadelphia were assigned the duty of hearing legal challenges to the rules last week, and the request to delay implementation will be their first order of business.

Change could take years

Powell pledged little in the way of immediate actions beyond accelerating review of roughly 1,200 backlogged applications for low-power FM radio stations as a way to get more locally controlled stations on the air. Other options, such as making owners demonstrate more clearly how they've served the public interest when licenses are renewed or limiting broadcast networks' power over affiliate programming, will be explored in an inquiry to be opened next month. New industry practices, such as "voice tracking" of distant radio DJs into local markets and centralcasting of TV news across multiple markets, will also be examined.

Possible rule changes, if any, would be proposed next year, perhaps in time for the next biennial review in 2004, and likely implemented no sooner than 2005.

To collect information for the inquiry, Powell appointed Media Bureau Deputy Chief Robert Ratcliffe and Deputy General Counsel Michele Ellison to head a task force.

Opponents called Powell's effort a smokescreen to dissuade lawmakers from rewriting the latest rules. "The purpose is to divert attention from a series of rules that allow ownership of multiple stations in nearly every market in the country," said Mark Cooper, research director for Consumer Federation of America.

A spokesman for Powell responded: "We're disappointed that a serious proposal to advance localism was politicized by some rather than being addressed on the merits."

Powell chides critics

Powell's initiative could affect whether the commission will soon rule on affiliates' demand for an FCC crackdown on network contract-negotiation tactics. The timing of such a decision was called into question by Powell's decision to examine rules governing network/affiliate relations as part of the new inquiry. An FCC staffer said it is unclear how that inquiry will affect an ongoing petition by the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance.

Powell took a shot a NASA, which is led by officials from Cox Communications and Post-Newsweek Stations, for its effort to roll back the 45% cap on one company's TV-household reach to the previous 35% on the grounds that affiliates do a better job serving local markets. "When a Sinclair Broadcasting or Cox Broadcasting or the Washington Post Co. also owns 50 or 60 stations nationwide, the idea they are uniquely positioned to make decisions affecting the local communities is false," he charged.

Post-Newsweek Stations President and NASA Chairman Alan Frank said the prospect of further delay on his group's petition would be "distressing." NASA officials called on the FCC to rule on it now rather than folding it into an inquiry that won't be completed for up to two years.

"Our petition has been in his office for 2½ years," Frank said. "Our position is that network behavior is inconsistent with the existing rules and the FCC should enforce the existing rules."

Jim Goodmon, whose Capitol Broadcasting owns WRAL-TV Raleigh-Durham and five other North Carolina broadcast stations, said Powell's initiative should have been conducted earlier: "Good idea, but it comes 18 months too late." "NAB welcomes a review of the public service performed day in and day out by free, over-the-air broadcasters," said association spokesman Dennis Wharton, predicting that station operators will rate well when their public-interest performance is examined.