The FCC set a May date to start considering again whether companies can own TV stations and newspapers in the same market, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said last week. Those comments came at his first congressional appearance as chairman, at a House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearing on FCC reform.
It's not the first time the FCC has tackled the newspaper-broadcast crossownership issue since the commission decided in 1975 to forbid companies to own both TV stations and newspapers. Until 1994, Congress forbade the commission to even review the rule. When The Walt Disney Co. bought Capital Cities Inc. in 1996, the FCC issued its first public inquiry on the rule but determined that it should stay in place.
A similar outcome resulted when the FCC looked at the rule as part of the biennial review it completed last May. In that proceeding, though, the commission said it would issue a rulemaking, which is what is due in two months.
Companies like Belo, Cox, News Corp., Post-Newsweek and Tribune, which own both newspapers and broadcast properties, have long been pushing to get rid of the ban, which they maintain should no longer apply in a world where one large media company can merge with another. News Corp. in particular has an immediate concern because it is in the process of buying Chris-Craft, which would result in its owning two TV stations and the New York Post in the New York City market.
Also at the hearing, Powell addressed another issue much on broadcasters' minds: whether the 35% cap on a broadcaster's national viewing-audience reach should be raised. Powell told members of Congress that he would defer to a federal court's judgment on the cap. But he also said the FCC has a "legal obligation" to complete a biennial review of many of its rules, of which the 35% cap is a part, as ordered by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The major broadcast networks-particularly NBC and News Corp.-are fighting hard to rid themselves of that cap while non-network-owned affiliates are fighting just as hard to keep it. It was one of the principal complaints of a group of affiliates, the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, that petitioned the FCC last month to investigate what it said were network abuses of their power over affiliates, abuses they said could escalate if networks were allowed to own more of their stations. Right now, the cap issue is in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Powell's main purpose at the hearing was to outline his four-point plan to reform the FCC, which he said he would like to have largely completed within the year. Those four points are 1) having a clear policy vision; 2) emphasizing the FCC's organization and management; 2) building the FCC's independent technological and economic expertise; and 4) restructuring the agency to more accurately reflect marketplace offerings.
Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee were extremely pleased with Powell's presentation. Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-Ohio) said that Powell gave a "virtuoso performance," and Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Calif.) suggested that, if Powell succeeds in reforming the FCC in the manner he proposed, he should go on to "run the federal government."