Tribune Could Get Temporary Cross-Ownership Waivers

Tribune Likely Must Divest Hartford, Where It Owns WTXX-TV, Hartford Courant

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin suggested Tuesday that he was not opposed to granting Tribune short-term waivers to continue to own newspapers and TV stations in the same market if he can keep to a timetable of a Dec. 18 vote on a proposed loosening of cross-ownership rules.

But if that timetable is upset, he suggested, Tribune would be unlikely to get the waivers, and either way he anticipated that the commission would require the company to divest in Hartford, Conn.

In an interview with reporters, Martin said he could not speak directly to the Tribune situation, but he made his points nonetheless. He did not commit to interim waivers -- Tribune has said that it needs them by mid-November to make an end-of-the-year closing date for its deal to sell the company to an employee group and investor Sam Zell. But he did suggest that they were a possibility.

While saying that the FCC wouldn't issue any long-term waivers similar to ones it had in the past, he added that he hoped the commission would be able to move forward on a decision on the Tribune deal by the end of the year.

While the commission has said before that it would not grant any more waivers pending an indefinite ownership-rulemaking proceeding, Martin suggested, without speaking specifically to the Tribune deal, that the situation would be "significantly different if the commission actually is moving forward on proposed rules. We certainly want to make sure that any transactions that would be impacted aren't adversely impacted by the timing of the vote.”

But he also said that depended on whether he got a vote on his proposal by year's end, which a number of senators are trying to block. "Could there be time-limited waivers? Potentially, yes," he said. "But that would be actually if the commission was anticipating taking action on the rules in the next few weeks," and was granting waivers in anticipation of that. "If we're not going to act on any changes of the rules, then we should be applying those rules as they apply now," he added.

Tribune's ownership of WTXX-TV and the Hartford Courant in a market outside of the top 20 would not pass muster under the chairman's proposal. While Martin said Tribune could apply for a waiver under the proposed new policy, with the commission deciding on a case-by-case basis, the presumption would be against. "I anticipate that the application of the rules in the Hartford situation would require them to divest," he added.