FCC votes to revise cap rules

Cross-ownership legislation brought to the forefront

WASHINGTON — Determined to get on with the business at hand, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to begin the thorny process of rewriting two crucial ownership rules covering the media biz.

Only a week ago, the entertainment biz was abuzz with talk about further deregulation of the industry, with attention focused on the FCC’s plan to put up for review the two ownership regs.

On Thursday, however, media/entertainment lobbyists were more than a little subdued as the FCC officially voted — a vote that normally would have led to whoops and cheers among the lobbyists.

It was impossible to ignore the grief and shock still consuming the country in the wake of terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., and Gotham. FCC chair Michael Powell and the other three commissioners all wore red, white and blue ribbons.

“Sadly, there will only be a few degrees of separation between all of us. Some of our extended FCC family has died, and we have employees who are grieving for loved ones that perished,” Powell said upon opening the regularly scheduled public meeting.

Long-standing opposition

The FCC has put on the table a cross-ownership rule that prohibits a broadcaster from owning a newspaper in the same major market. An FCC commissioner before he became chairman in January, Powell has long spoken against the rule.

The second ownership rule up for debate is a cable cap that prohibits a cabler from reaching more than 30% of the national audience.

Earlier this year, a federal appeals court in Washington declared the 30% mark arbitrary and unconstitutional. Court left the door open for the FCC to set the cap at a new level, but with adequate justification.

Thursday’s vote means that interested parties have 75 days to file comments regarding the cable cap and another 30 days to file replies.

Similarly, parties will have 60 days to file comments in the cross-ownership review and 30 to file reply comments.

Consumer advocates say the rules must be preserved but doubt the Republican-controlled FCC will put teeth into the review process. Otherwise, diversity on the airwaves will be further muted.

“I’m concerned that the agency is not stepping up to the plate to gather the data,” Consumer Union’s Washington co-director Gene Kimmelman said.

Relaxation of the cable ownership cap means congloms such as AOL Time Warner and AT&T can expand their cable system empires. Media moguls like News Corp. topper Rupert Murdoch are aggressively pursuing the ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same major market.

Also at the FCC meeting, the commissioners voted to study an ambitious plan to reorganize the agency.

Powell is proposing to merge the mass media, cable and satellite bureaus into one mega-division. The mass-media bureau oversees the broadcast biz.

TV industryites say the new bureau would make matters more streamlined, particularly in an age of vertical congloms with multiple interests.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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