The road to getting the media-ownership rules done by June 2 is going to be
rocky, if a National Association of Broadcasters panel with four Federal
Communications Commission members Tuesday is any indication.
Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Michael Copps took strong and opposite
positions on whether it is high time to complete the latest biennial review of
six ownership rules, with commissioners Kevin Martin and Jonathan Adelstein
trying to provide some middle ground.
Copps is adamant that not enough time has been spent answering key questions
on how relaxing the ownership rules would affect the American media climate.
"We need to study this more. I don't think we have all the regularity of data
that we need," Copps said.
Abernathy argued that with 15,000 comments gathered, "We do possess the
knowledge to make these decisions."
"At this point, there is a very voluminous record," said Nancy Victory, head
of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, assistant
secretary of commerce and representative of the Bush administration. "It is
time to make a decision."
The most complicated decision will be what to do with a cap that prevents
companies from owning more TV stations than cover 35 percent of U.S. households.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled that 35
percent is an arbitrary number, so the commission faces the task of placing
future limits on TV ownership and then justifying those limits to the court.
The commission is also divided over FCC chairman Michael Powell's intention
to develop a so-called diversity index, which would use a mathematical formula
to determine whether there is enough media diversity in a given market.
Tuesday morning, Powell said the concept was "not that sophisticated or
complex. I don't think there should be a freak-out about using data methodology
to make sense of data."
But Martin said later that the commission should be moving toward "simple
rules that everyone can understand, and then creating tools that everyone can
Adelstein and Abernathy stepped in, saying a diversity index would be used to
give the rules across-the-board consistency and an ability to provide
case-by-case analysis on media mergers.
All four commissioners and Powell earlier Tuesday agreed that Detroit radio
station WKRK-FM more than deserved the $27,500 fine levied on it last week for
broadcasting indecent material.
Copps said the station should have immediately been sent to hearing to
determine whether its license should be revoked, while Martin said the
commission considered fining the station for each individual violation.
"We've now given warning," Adelstein said. "All broadcasters should be on
notice that they've been warned."
Finally, all four commissioners and Victory agreed that next on the
commission's agenda should be a decision on what cable's obligations are
regarding carrying broadcasters' digital-TV signals.
"We need to try and decide this issue," Martin said. "It is critical to
resolve so broadcasters can make business plans."
Martin, Adelstein and Abernathy all appeared open to the idea that
broadcasters' entire digital stream should be carried by cable operators,
whether in one high-definition flow or in several multicast streams, but all
said the surrounding legal arguments are thorny.