Cross-Ownership Surprise at Senate Commerce Committee Hearing

The Seattle Times Publisher Blethen Wants FCC to Keep Ban; Lavine, Dean of Medill School at Northwestern, In Favor of Scrapping It 11/08/2007 09:05:00 AM Eastern

In what was a twist on the expected, newspaper and TV executives testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday argued against lifting the newspaper/TV cross-ownership ban, while an academic argued for it.

Frank A. Blethen

That came in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing led by Democrats looking to delay a Federal Communications Commission vote on media-ownership-rule changes planned for Dec. 18.

Frank A. Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, told the legislators the FCC should keep the cross-ownership ban in place, adding that the unenforced mandates on localism and diversity should be enforced and new limits on ownership should be added.

Blethen said the absentee-ownership model had been a failure and the claims of financial distress by big media companies were a myth. He pointed to owners that he said had milked TV stations and newspapers for the highest profit margins possible, up to 50% for TV, adding that they simply were no longer able to sustain those false margins.

John Lavine, dean of the Medill School at Northwestern, came to the defense of scrapping the cross-ownership ban, saying that it would boost local news in midsized and smaller markets.

Lavine said he didn't think the industries were losing money, either, but that they continued to lose advertising, and that the smaller the market, the smaller the margin was becoming and the harder it was to support the staffs required to do good local news.

He added that those smaller markets were not currently doing much of any real local news, and that allowing a newspaper to also own the station would give it a parent in the business of covering local news.

Lavine said lifting the ban would help, not hurt, minorities, adding that if the FCC allowed a small, minority-owned paper to own a struggling radio station, it could better compete with bigger media by doing the kind of local news that is the backbone of newspapers and that the bigger companies aren't doing.

Capitol Broadcasting president Jim Goodmon took umbrage at the suggestion that newspapers knew how to do news better than broadcasters and, in any event, said that the issue was not small markets wanting to do better news but bigger owners wanting to own more outlets.

He added that with the digital-TV transition approaching, the FCC should wait and see how it shakes out before allowing companies to own more media outlets, pointing out that the switch to digital will already give radio stations more channels without any loosening of ownership rules.

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