FCC rules stayed

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A Federal Appeals Court Wednesday blocked implementation of the Federal Communications Commission's new broadcast rules scheduled to take effect Thursday.

A three-judge panel of the Appeals Court in Philadelphia stayed the new rules until lawsuits to overturn them are settled, which could take a year or longer.

Of course, the legal battle over the rules could be moot if congressional efforts to overturn them are successful.

In the meantime, the FCC's previous broadcast-ownership rules will govern the industry.

Wednesday’s decision keeps in place for now the 35% cap on one company’s TV-household reach rather than imposing the 45% limit set by the commission in June.

That development is a blow to the big broadcast networks, which have asked the court to raise the cap, if not eliminate it altogether. Network officials did not return requests for comment late Wednesday.

Also derailed were relaxation of limits on local TV duopolies and broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership.

In their order, the judges worried that the government would have little recourse to undo mergers that could later be found impermissible if the new rules are overturned. “The harm ... absent a stay would be the likely loss of an adequate remedy should the new ownership rules be declared invalid,” they wrote.

Cheryl Leanza, deputy director for public-advocacy group Media Access Project, praised the judges’ decision. “We’re delighted,” she said. “This is a major case, and there would be great harm to the public because there would be little way to undo any mergers that would be consummated.”

A spokesman from the FCC, which opposed the stay, expressed disappointment in Wednesday’s stay and vowed that the agency would “vigorously defend” the new rules when the court examines their merits.

Democratic commissioner Michael Copps -- who voted against the rule changes and was rebuffed by chairman Michael Powell in a request for a stay by the agency -- found a measure of satisfaction in the decision. “The court has done what the commission should have done in the first place,” he said

The judges, led by Chief Judge Anthony Scirica, also indicated that they would rule quickly on a petition by CBS, Fox and NBC to move the case to the Federal Appeals Court in Washington, D.C., which ordered the FCC to alter its ownership rules in the first place. Briefs opposing the transfer are due to the court Sept. 8 and the networks’ defense two days later.

On Capitol Hill, the Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote on a spending-bill amendment Thursday that would roll back the new rules -- a similar move was approved by the House in July. The Bush admnistration has threatened to veto any FCC rollback.

On a separate track from the appropriations rollback is a Senate “legislative veto” of the FCC changes. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.C.) is negotiating with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to schedule 10 hours of debate and a vote of the full Senate within the next two weeks.

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