UCC Challenges Tribune License Renewals in Hartford

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The United Church of Christ has challenged the license renewals of two Tribune stations, WTIC-TV and WTXX, both Hartford, Conn.

Tribune, which has been shopping its stations, owns the Hartford Current newspaper and has been operating the stations for six and seven years, respectively, under waivers of the FCC's newspaper/broadcast crossownerhip rule, which bans common ownership of TV stations and newspapers (though a host of such combos were grandfathered when the ban was intitially adopted).

A court tried to force Tribune to sell WTXX, but the FCC essentially said it wouldn't force the sale and a federal appeals court backed the commission up.

The church's Office of Communications has a long history of challenging licenses over ownership and children's TV issues.

"Tribune has not demonstrated that it is entitled to a permanent waiver of the NBCO rule," UCC said in its filing with the FCC.  "Permitting common ownership of the three media outlets does not serve the purpose of the NBCO rule of promoting a diversity of local news sources," it said. "Indeed, the very fact that Tribune utilizes the resources of the Courant to produce its news programming for WTIC-TV and then simulcasts the same news program on WTXX illustrates how Tribune’s cross-ownership diminishes the diversity of sources of local news in Hartford."

The UCC said it shouldn't get another temporary waiver either. "Previously, the Commission granted three temporary waivers to permit Tribune time to make its best efforts divest WTXX or the Hartford Courant. The Commission has granted Tribune more than sufficient time to divest the appropriate media outlets and yet Tribune has not done so."

Tribune has been operating the stations under a succession of temporary waivers--the FCC declined to grant permanent ones--and has asked for another such waiver, or alternately one that will extend until the FCC has reconsidered and revamped its media ownership rules.

In 2003, the FCC passed new ownership rules that would have lifted the broadcast-newspaper crossownership ban, but the rules were challenged in court and remanded for revisions and better justification.

But one of the changes the court didn't seem to have a problem with was lifting the ban. Just this week, Ed Markey, Democratic Chairman of the House Telecommunications subcommittee, suggested to Tribune's top Washington executive, Shawn Sheehan, that lifting the ban, one of Sheehan's long-sought goals, might finally happen, though the FCC's rule rewrite probably won't happen until early next year at the soonest.

The Hartford station licenses expire April 1.

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