As expected, media activists at Free Press and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People late Monday petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to deny Media General Inc.’s request for permission to keep both WMBB-TV Panama City, Fla., and the Jackson County Floridan, one of the market’s daily newspapers.
Free Press and NAACP said Media General has given no compelling reason why it should receive a waiver from the FCC's ban on crossownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market.
The groups pointed out that the FCC has granted only four permanent waivers to the crossownership restrictions and, in each, the owners were required to demonstrate that they have tried and failed to sell one of the properties or that one of them would fail financially if the owner were forced to divest.
Because of a loophole in FCC rules, the commission can't stop a TV station owner from acquiring a local newspaper in the same market, and can't order the combo broken up until the station's license comes up for renewal.
Consequently, Media General was able to buy WMBB in spring 2000 and the Floridan in September of that year. The license for WMBB expires Feb.1.
Media General established the combo expecting the FCC to eliminate or at least greatly relax the crossownership restriction. The FCC did vote to relax the rule in June 2003, but a federal appeals court subsequently struck down the change and ordered the FCC to undertake a rewrite that remains pending.
"Media General took the risk of gambling that the newspaper-broadcast crossownership rule would be repealed or modified before the WMBB-TV license would come up for renewal. Media General lost that bet," wrote lawyers for Free Press and NAACP.
The groups noted that a side benefit of an FCC order to divest one of the Panama City outlets would be creating an opportunity for a minority owner to acquire the property.
Media General faces similar challenges in other markets as its TV licenses come up for renewal. It already faces a petition to break up a TV/newspaper combo in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The company must also obtain waivers next year for combos in Columbus, Ga., and Johnson City, Tenn.