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Tribune Wants It Now and Never - Broadcasting & Cable

Tribune Wants It Now and Never

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An FCC ruling has paved the way for Chicago's Tribune Co. to get two-year temporary waivers in markets where it owns broadcast stations and newspapers.

That 3-2 decision allows Tribune to complete its deal to sell the beleaguered company to investor Sam Zell and Tribune's employees. That transaction was endangered by the FCC's long deliberations, with Democratic commission members opposed to loosening cross-ownership rules, and Republicans in favor of letting those rules dissolve in the nation's 20 largest markets.

Nevertheless, shortly after the FCC helped Tribune on Nov. 30, the company filed suit against the FCC to have the rules permanently lifted. If it loses in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, it still has its temporary waivers; if it wins, the cross-ownership rules could be gone for good. B&C's P.J. Bednarski spoke with Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons about the cross-ownership battle.

There are plenty of opponents of the cross-ownership rights you were just granted. What are they getting wrong?

The sound bites are really easy when you talk about big media. Somebody's always got a beef against some element in the media universe, blaming cross-ownership and media concentration for the war in Iraq, global warming, for all sorts of things—and that all gets lumped together. But the media universe is so complex that big media becomes a convenient scapegoat.

Do you think there was ever a need for cross-ownership rules?

This rule came about for political reasons in the '70s. The Nixon administration was looking to punish The Washington Post [at the time, Post-Newsweek also owned WTOP in the nation's capital]. So there really wasn't data to support the rule then and there certainly isn't now, given the diversity of sources consumers now have. Never have consumers been better served.

The real question is, with newspapers facing challenges, why would you want to limit the institution that has the most journalists that make these huge investments in newsgathering, that has the ability to add depth to our co-owned stations' newscasts? And that, in effect, is what this rule does.

Tribune would like the cross-ownership rule eliminated regardless of the size of the market, is that right?

Yes. At stations with smaller shares of revenue in markets that are below 30 or so, you see news operations being eliminated. You really think if a newspaper owned a television station in those markets that those stations would eliminate news? I think they'd have a greater news presence.

But some members of the FCC sure don't see things that way.

Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein certainly have gotten a lot of mileage out of the big media campaign they have waged. But they really haven't addressed the changes in the media marketplace. Commissioner Copps has a regulatory policy that addresses the 1950s.

Have you ever had a sit-down with Copps, away from the glare of a hearing room?

One time I went in with a presentation of what the media marketplace was like now and how every medium was competing for advertising dollars. I showed him a chart that showed Google, Yahoo and other Internet companies, what their market capitalization looked like, and here's what the entire publicly traded newspaper company capitalization looks like.

I said, “This is what has happened in the last several years. Maybe you should rethink your position on this.” This is what I'm surprised that Copps just doesn't recognize.

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