FCC rewrites broadcast ownership

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To a literal chorus of protest, the Federal Communications Commission voted
Monday 3-2 to loosen five of its six major broadcast-ownership regulations,
or what FCC chairman Michael Powell called the "graying rules of a black-and-white bygone era."

As expected, the commission did away with the absolute ban on
broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership, raised the national audience-reach cap for
station-group owners from 35% to 45% and allowed combinations of two stations
in a market in more markets and three to a market in a handful, with the caveat
that those combos could not include any among a market's top four stations.

The FCC decided to maintain the UHF discount, which only counts one-half of a UHF
station's audience toward the national-reach cap. But the discount will be
sunset for the top four networks in markets that have completed the digital
transition. The FCC said this was because the transition should remove the
technical-disparity argument for the discount.

The one rule left standing intact was the dual-network-ownership rule, which bans
any of the four major networks from buying each other.

Powell acknowledged the growing public dissent on the rule changes, saying
that was as it should be and it did have a moderating effect on the
outcome: "Those protests," he said, "introduced a note of caution in the choices
we have made," which he called modest.

But he remained sure of his court and congressional imperative: "Without
today's surgery," he added, "the patient would have met a swift death."

The vote was split down party lines, with Republicans Kevin Martin and
Kathleen Abernathy joining Powell in support of the changes.

Powell and his backers maintained that the FCC faced a high hurdle from the
courts and Congress in reviewing the rules, and that their charge was to either
modify or eliminate any that were not demonstrably necessary. Powell has long
maintained that the rules have been outstripped by an expanding media
marketplace.

The presence of cable and satellite was cited in today's proceeding as the
justification for a number of the changes.

Media Bureau chief Ken Ferree opened the meeting by holding up a set of
rabbit ears, calling them a relic and using them as a symbol of the "rusty"
unenforceable restrictions the FCC was attempting to update.

The dissents to the new rules by Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and
Jonathan Adelstein were strong, with Copps saying the decision gave a "media
elite unaccepatable levels of influence."

The FCC got it wrong, he added, predicting that the result would be "oligopoly
and monopoly."

Adelstein called it a sad day for himself and the country and labeled the
decision an indefensible "incoherent, outcome-driven political document."

"If this is the toaster with pictures," he said, referring to the famous
description of TV by former FCC chairman Mark Fowler, "then soon only
Wonderbread will pop out."

Adelstein and Copps complained of a lack of opportunity for public input on
the rules, including Powell's refusal to make the proposed changes public before
the vote.

Powell was following standard procedure, but Copps argued that given the
importance of the issue, it should not have been "business as usual."

Copps and Adelstein criticized the FCC for failure to explore more fully
possible links between consolidation and content -- indecency, violence and
"crassness." Both predicted that the new rules could not withstand lawsuits that inevitably will follow or rewrited by Congress.

On the issue of delaying the proceeding another month, as Copps and Adelstein
had wanted at a minimum, Abernathy said, "I can't do it," pointing out that the
biennial review was already five months behind and that was already equivalent
to being "unfaithful to congressional intent."

She cited the intent of Congress, the courts and the Constitution as guiding
her decision to vote for the rules, saying that facts, not fears of some
"mythical media monopoly," should inform that decicion.

Adding that it was not her place to control content, Abernathy said, "I
refuse to pour one ounce of concrete to build a structure to tell people what to
watch or think."

The FCC's special meeting was punctuated by applause for Copps' and Adelstein's
lengthy dissents, and it ended with a chorus of protesters singing: "The end of regulation of mass communication is the end of democracy."

There had also been a protest outside FCC headquarters before the meeting by
a group, Black Voices for Peace, featuring veteran activist Dick
Gregory.

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