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Free Press to FCC: Deny South Bend Deal

Free Press, Media Access Project question Schurz Communications' purchase of trio of low-power TV stations in South Bend, Ind., from Weigel Broadcasting. 9/22/2008 08:18:00 AM Eastern

Free Press asked the Federal Communications Commission to deny Schurz Communications' purchase of a trio of low-power TV stations in South Bend, Ind.

Filing the petition for Free Press, Media Access Project argued that allowing one company to own four of the six network-TV affiliates (though only two of the Big Four), two radio stations and the only daily newspaper in the market was not in the public interest.

Schurz countered that it provided all of the information the FCC requires and that its history in similar purchases has been to improve the public service on the stations it acquires.

MAP does not routinely try to block purchases of low-power stations, its Andrew Jay Schwartzman said, but it does routinely file against deals that would lead to the control of so many media outlets in a market.

While the FCC has ownership limits on full-power stations in a market, low-powers are not similarly circumscribed with the exception of class-A LPTV stations, which were not involved in this case.

According to Free Press research director S. Derek Turner, Shurz already owns WSBT-TV, the full-power CBS affiliate; the South Bend Tribune, the only daily newspaper, which Schurz owns via a grandfathered broadcast/newspaper combination; WSBT (AM), the only news-radio station; and WNSN-FM. Adding the Weigel Broadcasting stations would expand that portfolio by WBND-LP, the ABC affiliate; WCCW-LP, The CW affiliate; and WMTS-LP, the MyNetworkTV affiliate.

With that lineup, MAP added, "Schurz alone will control 81% of the revenue in the South Bend news market … [Schurz] does not claim, much less establish, that any of the involved stations are failing, that they are experiencing financial distress, that it will be adding significant amounts of new local news, or that the Schurz properties will exercise independent news judgments. Thus, it meets none of the criteria that a majority of the commission recently said would be necessary to rebut a presumption against cross-ownership in medium-sized or smaller markets."

MAP is referring to the FCC's recent loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban subject to various criteria. The rule does not apply to the Schurz purchase, but MAP is making the point that the FCC set standards that the Schurz purchase would not meet were they full-powers, which means it would not be in the public interest.

MAP wants the application dismissed or designated for hearing so that the FCC will have to make a determination of whether that combo is in the public interest.

Marci Burdick, senior vice president, electronic for Schurz, bristled at the suggestion that its deal is not in the best interests of the public and South Bend viewers.

"These are low-power stations that are currently run out of Chicago and microwaved into South Bend," she told B&C, adding that it was ludicrous to imply that Schurz purposely did not provide information to the FCC.

"We have provided all of the information the FCC requires in its applications," she said. That application does not require a public-interest showing, which is why none was supplied she said, adding that if the FCC needed more information, Schurz would supply it.

"Schurz has done a number of acquisitions over the past couple of years," she said, "and in every case, it has significantly improved service to the community," adding that Schurz puts that commitment out front in the "core values" it professes on its home page.

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