Consumer Committee Weighs In on Ownership

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The Media working group of the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee has approved recommendations on how the commission should proceed with its ownership review, which is essentially comprehensively, openly, and with plenty of opportunity for consumer input.

Absent from that document are a a long preamble describing the 2003 rules, and a "Key Question" about toughening license renewal. Also at broadcasters request, a question was added about how technological change has affected how the audience obtains information.

The committee made four principal recommendations:

1) adopt rules that promote localism, competiton and diversity of voices; 2) schedule and attend hearings across the country (the FCC majority has already committee to at least five); 3) compile a "far more complete" record than in 2003, including more media concentration studies (studies are also on the agenda); 4) and put out a Notice of Proposed Rule Change, with sufficient time for additional comment, on any specific proposed rule changes.

The FCC has not committed to putting out changes for comment, though it has set an extended initial comment on what those changes should be. Commission Democrats Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps have also called for those NPRMs.

The committee-approved document also poses some key questions it wants the FCC to specifically address as it reviews all its rules. They include how it could reasonably proceed without first concluding a 2004 inquiry on the impact of consolidation of localism.

Adelstein and Copps are already on the record saying the FCC should conclude that proceeding before deciding how to rewrite ownership rules. So is a third FCC Democrat, but she is former commissioner Gloria Tristani, now with the Benton Foundation, whose head, Charles Benton, is a member of the committee.

Other key questions include whether concentration increases the chances for payola--a question added since an April draft of the document--as well as its impact on indecency, minority ownership, independent programming. The committee also asks whether broadcasters argument that it needs to be able to own more stations for "economies of scale" holds up in a DTV world where they will be able to braodcast multiple streams from a single station.

The recommendations now go to the FCC, which can act on them or not. The committee, says Tristani, will now concentrate on the DTV transition recommendations it made last fall. The FCC has yet to respond to those.

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