Lawsuits Fly Over Ownership Changes

Activists: FCC went too far; Stations: No, not far enough
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The legal floodgates have opened in the wake of the FCC's Dec. 18 decision to loosen the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban.

The FCC says in a letter to a judicial review group that at least 20 lawsuits have been filed against the rules, some by anti-consolidation activist groups who wanted tougher restrictions and other broadcasters who say they wanted the FCC to get rid of more rules.

The suits were filed in at least five circuit courts. Broadcasters stuck with the D.C. Circuit, thought to be friendlier to its consolidation cause, while media activists filed in various other circuits—the Ninth, Sixth and First. Media groups say the appeals should all be funnelled to the Third Circuit. That is the court that remanded the FCC's deregulatory 2003 rules back to the commission for better justification.

Some broadcasters say the committee should hold a lottery to see which court draws the short straw. With what almost sounds like a note of resignation, the FCC says in the letter to Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation of Multicircuit Petitions for Review that it will accept whatever courts the panel suggests.

The new FCC ownership rule allows for the ownership of a TV or radio station and a newspaper in the top 20 markets under certain conditions. It presumes such combos are not in the public interest in smaller markets, though waivers will be considered. Broadcasters wanted much more leeway to acquire stations and/or newspapers in the same market.

Commission Democrats saw that waiver policy as a huge loophole, but FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has said it is meant to be a hurdle. In fact, Martin suggested that the cross-ownership change was as far as he meant to go.

After the rules were published in the Federal Register Feb. 21, the FCC had 10 days to collect information on who was suing it where, then turn over that list to the judicial conference.

The list is a long one: the activist groups Free Press, the United Church of Christ and Media Alliance; Prometheus Radio; the Newspaper Association of America; Tribune Co.; Fox Broadcasting; Sinclair Broadcasting; Cox Communications; Bonneville Communications; The Scranton Times; Media General; the National Association of Broadcasters; and a Raycom/small-market TV station coalition.

Martin has said his intention was only to loosen the cross-ownership rule, but not ease local TV or radio caps. He calls that a moderate step, and responsive to activist concerns about media consolidation.