LAS VEGAS — Congress may want the FCC to finish reviewing media ownership rules by June 2, but the commission itself remains widely divided, even on whether it has enough information to settle a momentous set of issues.
Chairman Michael Powell was featured in a breakfast one-on-one at the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention Tuesday, followed in the afternoon by his four FCC colleagues and U.S. Commerce Dept. Assistant Secretary Nancy Victory in a round-robin discussion.
What was abundantly clear from the two sessions is how far from a consensus commissioners are on the rules changes they are examining.
The FCC must decide whether to ease or eliminate the 35% cap on station ownership by a single company and whether to allow more cross-ownership between broadcast stations and newspapers, among other questions.
Commissioner Michael Copps worried that any decision to lift those limits will be virtually irreversible.
Pick a number
“If we’re going to change the 35%, we ought to get awful serious awful quick about what number it’s going to be,” Copps said. “There are so many questions that remain unanswered when you look at the impact of loosening these caps.”
Adding to the pressure, the Federal Communications Commission has been grappling with ownership issues for so long that Congress mandated it be completed by June, just before the commission must restart the biennial rule review all over again.
On nearly every part of the discussion, however, the commission is split, uncertain and, in some cases, impatient with further delays.
While Copps and Jonathan Adelstein worried the FCC hasn’t gathered enough information to justify any number-setting, commish Kathleen Abernathy said it’s time to make some decisions.
“It’s not as if people haven’t come to us,” Abernathy said. “We are at the stage where we’re supposed to figure it out.”
“I think the record is quite mature,” Powell said. “These issues are impassioned and old in time, but we’re duty-bound to follow the law and we have to complete a review every two years.”
Powell said it would be “irresponsible to do away with all the rules,” but the FCC must do a better job devising legal justifications for whatever limits it does create.
Given the statements by a commission majority, some changes seem likely — even if their extent is uncertain.
“You have to demonstrate that a rule is necessary, and if you can’t you have to eliminate it,” Powell said. “The commission historically has been extremely poor at offering rationales for regulations. They have to be internally consistent, coherent and sustainable.”
Victory, who represented the Bush Administration’s position, called the collection of testimony on the issues “the most voluminous record I’ve ever seen.”
Time to decide
“It’s really time to make a decision,” Victory said. “There is no safe decision on all these rules. There’s going to be an opportunity cost for every one of them.”
One likely target may be the ban on cross-ownership between TV stations and newspapers, which a majority of the commission indicated might be ready for elimination.
“The commission needs to do something to relax, if not repeal it,” commish Kevin Martin contended. “We have to take into account that the media landscape has changed.”
Powell’s “diversity index,” a proposed formula measuring a community’s range of information sources, still faces much skepticism from colleagues, who doubt it would be useful in determining ownership questions.
The commission did agree on an entirely different question that has gotten broadcasters’ attention: the possible revocation of licenses for excessive violations of rules against “indecent programming.”
The commission recently fined Infinity Broadcasting’s WKRK-FM $27,500 for repeated violations of the indecency rules by a pair of its shock jocks. Then, at Copps’ suggestion, it began to consider taking away the station’s license, the next step if more violations occur.
“This is a new message we’re sending,” Adelstein said. “It’s a departure, and a strengthening of our position. We’ve now given a warning, a very serious statement by this commission.”