Chair calls mass review of rules 'long overdue'
In a move that could redefine the broadcast biz and allow big media congloms to begin gobbling up newspapers, radio stations and TV outlets to their heart’s delight, the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to begin easing the country’s most significant ownership rules.There’s also a chance the FCC could relax a rule blocking one company from owning two major broadcast nets, although of all the regs in the offing, this one is the least likely to be tossed. Never before has the FCC put up so many rules for review at the same time, in part reflecting the market-friendly stance of FCC chair Michael Powell. “It is ambitious, but I would submit it is long overdue,” said Powell, chastising previous FCC administrations for failing to refashion the broadcast rules with the advent of cable and satellite. The Writers Guild of America West and consumer advocates didn’t agree. “The new ownership rules should enhance free competition and move America toward greater diversity of viewpoints in the media, not toward putting the power to decide what all Americans see on television and read in the newspapers into the boardrooms of a handful of powerful individuals,” WGA West prexy Victoria Riskin said. In Powell’s defense, the FCC is under enormous pressure from the courts to justify certain ownership regs. There could be several outcomes when the FCC takes a final vote in the spring or summer, following an exhaustive review, which will include several studies and a public comment period. Certain rules could be scrapped altogether; or they could be recalibrated. Changing the biz Whatever the case, the Republican-controlled commission is widely expected to substantially change the way broadcasters do business in expanding their empires. The broadcast regs now under official rule include:
- The dual network rule. Enacted in 1946, the reg has kept the four major nets from coming under one roof;
- A national cap, enacted in 1941, barring one broadcaster from reaching more than 35% of the national aud. Viacom, parent company of CBS, and News Corp., parent of Fox, are especially eager to see the threshold raised. Earlier this year, a federal court of appeals found serious flaws with the cap and ordered the FCC to justify the reg;
- A duopoly rule blocking a broadcaster from owning multiple stations in a market. This reg, on the books since 1964, has already been somewhat relaxed, per the instructions of a separate court ruling;
- A TV-radio cross-ownership rule restricting how many outlets a broadcaster can own in one market. Viacom has been at the forefront of the fight to soften this reg, which was adopted in 1970;
- A 1975 rule blocking broadcasters from owning newspapers in the same major market. The cross-ownership ban already has been the subject of a separate review, and is almost certain to be scrapped entirely.