Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell Wednesday promised
to investigate whether the government can make big media companies do a better
job serving local communities.
Powell conceded during a briefing for reporters that public and congressional
uproar over media consolidation convinced him to act, but he rejected calls to
postpone the scheduled Sept. 4 implementation of newly relaxed ownership limits.
Complaints about industry consolidation could be better addressed by
governing the way they operate rather than limiting their size or ability to
operate multiple media properties in a single market, he said, adding that
tighter ownership limits would be a "clumsy" way to address the public's
Powell pledged little in the way of immediate actions beyond accelerating
review of roughly 1,200 backlogged applications for low-power FM-radio stations
as a way to get more locally controlled stations on the air.
Other options -- such as making owners demonstrate more clearly how they've
served the public interest when licenses come up for renewal or limiting
broadcast networks' power over affiliate programming -- will be explored in an
inquiry that will begin next year.
To prepare the inquiry, Powell appointed Media Bureau deputy chief Robert
Ratcliffe and deputy general counsel Michele Ellison to head a task force that
will conduct field hearings, conduct studies on localism and make
recommendations to commissioners and Congress.
Information gleaned from the inquiry could result in proposed rule changes
that would likely need another year to vet and implement.
Critics of the FCC's June 2 relaxation of media-ownership limits complained
that Powell's new initiative is little more than a smoke screen to dissuade
lawmakers from passing legislation to rewrite the latest rules.
"The purpose is to divert attention from a series of rules that allow
ownership of multiple stations in nearly every market in the country," said Mark
Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America.
Although broadcasters don't want to face the specter of tougher public-interest obligations, the National Association of Broadcasters issued a breezy
response to Powell's initiative.
"NAB welcomes a review of the public service performed day in and day out by free, over-the-air broadcasters," said
spokesman Dennis Wharton, who predicted that station operators will stack up pretty
well when their public-interest performance is examined.
"As was demonstrated just last week during the
power crisis in the Northeast, there is no business in America more committed to keeping citizens informed than local radio
and television stations," he added.
Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc.'s Jim Goodmon, who has been at odds with the NAB's
support of relaxed local ownership rules, said Powell's initiative should have
been conducted earlier.
"Good idea, but it comes 18 months too late," Goodmon said. "With the new
media-ownership rules set to take effect in two weeks, a study now will not
remove public and Congressional concern."