TV’s reorientation day

Powell preps FCC vote on ownership direction

WASHINGTON — Under pressure to show his hand, Federal Communication Commission chairman Michael Powell is skedded to call for an official vote next week and begin the much-anticipated overhaul of ownership rules constraining the TV biz.

Powell, now nearly two years into his term, has been increasingly criticized for not acting more quickly when it comes to the various rules up for grabs. The big question now is whether Powell will live up to his deregulatory posture or adopt a more middle-of-the road approach.

“We’ll finally see whether his action matches up with his rhetoric,” one top exec said. “No one expected this to take almost two years.”

Even some of Powell’s fans on Capitol Hill are growing impatient, saying the industry shouldn’t be put on indefinite hold when it comes to growth, particularly during tough economic times.

The FCC dismissed criticism that Powell has been slow to call for a vote launching the review. FCC spokesman David Fiske said Tuesday that the process is right on track.

The FCC won’t make a final decision on any of the regs until spring at the earliest.

According to insiders, the proposed rulemaking to be voted on Sept. 12 will be divided into two categories: broadcast and cable. The slate of broadcast rules under review is likely to include:

  • A national cap barring a broadcaster from reaching more than 35% of the national audience. A federal appeals court has ruled there are serious problems with the cap and instructed the FCC to firm it up or declare it defunct. Most observers expect the FCC to set the cap at a higher number, say 50%.

  • A prohibition on owning a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same market. The delay in deciding the issue has been especially frustrating, with several Capitol Hill politicos urging Powell to act post-haste. The rule has been under separate review for more than a year, but Powell instructed staff to add it to the larger list.

  • A rule blocking a major network from buying another net.

  • A duopoly rule barring a broadcaster from owning two major stations in a market.

On the cable side, the key rule being put up for review is a national cap blocking a cable provider from reaching more than 30% of the national aud. The same appeals court that found problems with the broadcast cap found more serious problems with this cap, meaning the FCC will have a difficult time keeping it as is.

Earlier this year, Powell appointed a number of FCC staffers to a new media-ownership task force. The task force said it needed a certain amount of preparation time before the commission voted to commence the review.

The paperwork to be voted on next week is not expected to indicate Powell’s ultimate position or leanings. Rather, it will list a number of options for each rule.

Also at the Sept. 12 session, the FCC is expected to consider whether cabler providers should be forced to carry all digital broadcast signals. The cable biz has long objected to such a requirement, since each broadcast station could have up to six digital channels.

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