Court Vacates Forced WTXX Sale


A U.S. court of Appeals has vacated a lower court ruling that could have forced Tribune to sell either its WTXX Hartford or the Hartford Courant newspaper to come into compliance with the FCC's ban on cross-ownership of TV stations and local newspapers.

The FCC essentially already nullified that court's order last April when it granted the FCC a waiver of the sale only weeks after a court had ruled Tribune must sell.

Since 2001, Tribune has been under FCC orders to sell either WTXX or the Hartford Courant newspaper, which the company acquired as part of its purchase of Times-Mirror. Now, Tribune has permission to keep the station until 2007, when licenses for WTXX and another Hartford station owned by Tribune, WTIC, must be renewed.

The FCC had granted Tribune a permanent waiver to its TV duopoly restrictions because WTXX is a failing station that probably could not survive as a stand-alone operation.

Because of the Times-Mirror purchase, however, the FCC found that control over two TV outlets and the market's main newspaper would give Tribune too much media market power in Hartford. The company was granted two six-month waivers to continue operating WTXX until a buyer willing to pay the station's appraised value was found.

The last waiver expired August 2002 and the FCC did not act on Tribune's request for another extension until 2005.

Then in early 2005, a federal district court ordered Tribune to sell WTXX after a competitor sued to make the company comply with the crossownership ban. The suit was filed by real estate developer Neil Ellis, whose wife, Elizabeth, publishes the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, a Hartford suburb.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled March 23, 2006, that the lower court had "acted prematurely in not allowing the FCC to decide Tribune's pending waiver request," even conceding the FCC's "inordinate delay" in ruling on it.
The FCC tried to get rid of the TV/newspaper crossownership ban in a deregulatory media ownership rule rewrite under Chairman Michael Powell, but those rules were remanded by a federal appeals court for better justification. The FCC is expected to start providing that justification, including allowing newspaper/broadcast combos, as soon as it can seat a fifth commissioner and third Republican vote.