FCC Chairman Michael Powell last week formally launched the agency's most massive rewrite of broadcast- ownership restrictions ever. Big media companies are expected to get even more room to grow, but how and by how much remain fuzzy.
Still, longstanding walls blocking cable systems and newspapers from owning broadcast properties in their markets are almost certain to fall, as are the national caps on broadcast-TV household reach and cable subscriber share.
Powell isn't ready to say the jettisoning of those restrictions is a foregone conclusion, but, if hints to reporters last week were any stronger, they would have been outright confessions. "You can imagine a focus on purely local rules and not national rules, not on crossownership, but a 'voice test' limit that gets at the same thing in a more coherent and comprehensive way," he said during a press briefing shortly after he and the other commissioners began a sweeping revision that should be completed next spring or early summer.
Another indication that crossownership restrictions are history: The commission isn't even considering a court's offer to reconsider an earlier decision vacating the ban on local-cable/broadcast-television ownership.
Powell, as he has many times before, chafed at the frequently voiced conventional wisdom that he plans to abdicate the FCC's role in checking media monopolies. "We have been guided by the high notes of diversity, competition and localism that compose the chords of our vibrant democracy," he said. "Nothing in our proceeding takes issue with that."
Despite unprecedented consolidation of the broadcast and cable industries since the deregulatory Telecommunications Act, nearly every sector of the industry has petitioned policymakers to ease one restriction or another.
On the docket will be a call for suggested changes to rules limiting:
- Crossownership of local TV and radio outlets to no more than two TVs and six radios or one TV and one radio
- TV duopolies to markets where eight separately owned stations would remain, while barring combos of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox stations
- Dual broadcast-network ownership to combinations that do not include mergers of the Big Four.
Consolidated into that rulemaking will be previously launched proceedings on local newspaper/TV crossownership and local radio concentration. By mid October, eight FCC-commissioned studies of media-industry economics will be issued. Comments on the proposed rule changes and the studies will be due simultaneously.
The broad rulemaking was launched after a string of court cases challenging various ownership limits pushed judges to rule that the FCC failed to live up to its 1996 obligation to review the rules every two years and eliminate those not "necessary" to preserve the public interest.
To make sure the new rules pass court review, FCC-commissioned studies are examining whether:
- Changes in the number and types of media in various markets are changing the media landscape
- Consumers view different media as substitutes for each other
- Network O&Os, affiliates or independent stations cover news more comprehensively
- Cross-owned media voice similar editorial viewpoints
- Advertisers substitute among various media
- Increased local concentration affects broadcast programming diversity and ad rates
- Network program diversity has changed
- Consumers have "preferred" sources of news and public-affairs information.
Public advocates opposing deregulation predict that the FCC, despite Powell's rhetoric, will set the stage for a new round of massive deregulation that would allow conglomerates to grow virtually unchecked.