FCC congloms look at conglom ownership

For months, there has been endless buzz about which TV ownership rules the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission might tie a brick around and toss into the nearby Potomac.

Last week, FCC media chief Ken Ferree said the agency is folding its review of six ownership regs into one “blockbuster” of a study. Included is a doozy that currently bans congloms from owning more than one of the four major networks.

The other rules up for repeal have been known about for months. They include a ban on owning a newspaper and TV station in the same major market; a limit on the number of radio and TV stations a conglom can own in the same market; a rule regarding local radio concentration; and a national ownership cap blocking a broadcaster from reaching more than 35% of the national audience.

Ferree says it makes no sense to review the rules separately and that a consistent standard must be developed and applied across the board to all broadcast ownership rules. There was no pregnant pause, no special inflection as Ferree ran through the list and came upon the dual network prohibition.

“You can’t look at the rules in isolation. They are all distant cousins in a sense,” Ferree said.

“Chairman Powell has expressed concern over the years that too many of our ownership rules and regs seem to be founded on hunch and intuition, more than on solid, firm, factual ground.”

For many Capitol Hill pols, the ban on owning two major networks is sacrosanct. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) is sure to make trouble if the FCC considers repealing the ban; indeed, he’s already upset enough about the other ownership rules possibly being scuttled.

Hollings always returns to that elusive concept known as the public interest, the idea being that broadcasters have a duty to air a diversity of news and programming.

If two of the four major nets come under one media banner, what happens to diversity then? It’s a question that Hollings and other solons are likely to pose again as the FCC conducts its review.

Conversely, Viacom/CBS topper Mel Karmazin is among those in the broadcasting biz who believe Washington should get out of the way — all the way. He’s said repeatedly that he’d like the freedom to make a run for the Peacock, which is the only one of the major nets to remain unaffiliated with a conglom.

Ferree, who has emerged as the most powerful FCC figure after chairman Powell, is heading up the special ownership task force conducting the overarching review. He insists the FCC is likewise concerned about the public interest.

“We all care about the same core principles — localism, diversity, competition,” Ferree said.

The FCC task force expects to deliver its findings and recommendations to Powell sometime next spring, after which the full commission will vote. Ferree said a separate study would address a national ownership cap blocking one cabler from reaching more than 30% of the national audience.

Realistically, that means there will be no verdict on which rules remain and which are erased from the books until next summer, or even later. But pundits think any change could usher in a new wave of media consolidation.

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