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Powell gets backing for media regs

Chair's 'diversity index' being embraced

WASHINGTON — With the finish line in sight, FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s ideas for rewriting media ownership rules seem to be catching on.

The FCC is skedded to take a vote June 2 that is expected to hand media congloms even more power and set off a tidal wave of mega mergers.

In recent days, Powell’s model for measuring ownership concentration in local markets, known as the “diversity index” has gained traction.

There is also growing consensus that the FCC will raise the bar limiting the national audience a broadcaster can reach higher than previously expected — from 35% to 45% or even 50%.

These developments have industry insiders predicting a brave new ownership world where deregulation reigns.

“There seems to be some critical mass now for a decision on June 2 that’s deregulatory across the board,” one industry lobbyist remarked.

In a surprise move, late last week Belo Corp., told the FCC it would back a ruling raising the cap to 45%, a marked departure from its previous support of the status quo.

But Belo made it clear in a letter to the FCC that it would support such an increase only if the agency clamped down on alleged abuses by the nets, such as the practice of preventing affiliates from rejecting nets’ programs.

Belo is a leading member of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which remains an ardent proponent of retaining the current 35% cap.

“We think it’s good for localism, diversity and good for preserving the network-affiliate relationship,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said when asked about Belo’s about-face Tuesday.

On the other side of the argument, all the buzz about a 45% cap prompted Fox Entertainment to fire off a salvo aimed at raising the bar higher still.

The move came as no surprise to consumer groups, which claim Fox, which reaches 42% of the national audience, is simply trying to avoid being forced to sell off some of its stations.

Mark Cooper, who heads the Consumer Federation of America, slammed the momentum behind raising the cap as politically motivated.

“The cap is going to allow Fox not to divest,” Cooper said. “There’s no rational basis for picking that number. A sensible number would have been 25%, but those were the old days.”

Calling arguments against changing the rules at all “unsupported, ill-considered and irrelevant,” Fox attempted to debunk what it deemed “red herrings.”

In a letter to the FCC dated April 21, Fox rejected arguments by NAB and others that affiliates do a better job than the nets representing and appealing to local communities.

Instead, Fox argued that owner-operated stations can and do provide more “accurate and unbiased” local information than affiliates do.

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