Back to the Drawing Board

Facing another rewrite of ownership rules, FCC chief Martin must reach common ground with commission Democrats
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In a few weeks, the FCC will launch its third attempt in six years to write local­broadcast-ownership rules that will withstand the scrutiny of federal judges, a move likely to reignite protests from anti-consolidation activists and intense lobbying by big media companies seeking to get even larger.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is obligated to launch a new review after the Supreme Court last week upheld a lower-court decision striking down sweeping deregulation by the FCC in 2003. To avoid the bitter grassroots battle that led to the demise of the previous rule changes and still preserve his own wishes for deregulation, he must find a way to get commission Democrats on board.

To reach common ground, Martin may have to “bring in other broadcast issues like public-interest requirements that the Democrats would support,” says Paul Gallant, a media-policy analyst with Stanford Washington Research. Gallant also was the lead FCC staffer overseeing the 2003 rewrite. That deregulation relaxed limits on the number of TV stations one company could own nationwide and raised the number of TV and radio stations an owner could control in individual markets. The FCC also voted to eliminate the ban on ownership of broadcast stations and daily newspapers in the same market.

The 2003 deregulation itself was a rewrite of 1999 revisions also thrown out by federal appeals judges.

“The FCC has a fresh opportunity now to come up with a set of rules to encourage localism, competition and diversity in our media,” says Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps. A month ago, he rallied anti-consolidation activists in St. Louis to fight unless Martin agrees to hold a round of hearings around the country on media ownership and consolidation. “If we roll up our sleeves, all of us—advocates, creative artists, elected officials, consumers, citizens everywhere—we can settle this issue of who is going to control our media and for what purposes.”

Martin last week issued only a perfunctory statement acknowledging the task before the FCC: “I am now looking forward to working with all of my colleagues as we reevaluate our media-ownership rules.” But he had previously indicated that he'll offer some carrots to the FCC Democrats. In April, he won their votes to give Tribune Co. more time sell either WTXX Hartford, Conn., or the Hartford Courant by basing the extension in part on the company's pledge to improve the TV station's programming.

Newspaper Crossownership

Along those lines, Martin could lift the ban on newspaper crossownership in top-10 markets and require that cross­ownership in smaller cities be permitted only for owners that spell out how they will improve the stations' news and local programming.

The review he begins next month won't be nearly as complicated as the massive revision the FCC tried to impose two years ago, although it could be just as controversial. Congress took responsibility for national broadcast-TV ownership out of the FCC's hands late in 2003 by passing legislation that restricted one company's national ownership at 39% of U.S. television households.

The top priority of the National Association of Broadcasters will be winning permission for TV duopolies in smaller markets. Currently, ownership of two stations is limited to markets with eight or more stations.

As for relaxing the 1975 ban on news­paper crossownership, Martin has long been eager to move forward.

That would be welcome news to companies like Tribune, Gannett and Media General, which have a strategy of combining the news operations of papers and stations in their markets.

Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman says the legal fight has brought the negative consequences of newspaper/TV combos to the attention of most Americans. “We rely on over-the-air broadcasting and daily newspapers for the information we use in picking our mayors and city councils.”