FCC is of two minds on limits

Regulations would free big media, rein in cable

The Federal Communications Commission is set to loosen some restrictions on Big Media while apparently planning to rein in one big medium — the multibillion-dollar cable television industry.

Congress hopes to stop the first move as cablers are protesting the second, but it’s too soon to tell who will prevail.

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin said recently he would like to have the commission vote by Dec. 18 on whether to loosen media ownership restrictions. But two key lawmakers, arguing that Martin is moving too quickly on the issue, announced late last week they would introduce legislation to delay that vote.

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported Martin is preparing to issue regulations on cable TV, which Congress largely deregulated in 1996.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) claimed the agency had yet to fully review and research the impact of media consolidation on minority ownership of broadcast stations as well as on diversity and localism. The bill they plan to introduce would require the FCC to do that prior to any vote on ownership.

The agency has not carried out its mandated review and updating-of-ownership rules since 2003, when the FCC tried to loosen restrictions. The same two lawmakers, Dorgan and Lott, opposed that effort on similar grounds, and a federal appeals court ordered the agency to stop and better justify several of its proposed changes.

Under Martin, the FCC has since held six hearings across the country — the most recent was Friday in Seattle — taking public testimony and comment on media consolidation. Every hearing, including the one in Seattle, has been attended by consumer action groups and minority organizations telling the agency not to loosen existing restrictions.

Some broadcasters also have attended, arguing the restrictions are out of date and need to reflect a much bigger and diverse media universe.

Martin is expected to propose lifting the newspaper-broadcaster cross-ownership ban in a single market. He may also ease dual-station ownership restrictions.

Whether Dorgan and Lott’s bill can muster enough votes and be passed before Dec. 13 is not clear. A House companion bill does not yet exist, but Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) also has expressed concern about the FCC moving too quickly, and has skedded a hearing in the coming weeks.

The FCC is similarly required to review the state of competition within cable TV. Its latest review is due shortly, and industry insiders have been anticipating the data will show that pay TV has passed a key marker that would trigger regulatory action.

That marker is the so-called “70-70” rule, which holds that if 70% of American homes can get cable TV systems with 36 channels or more, and 70% of those homes actually do subscribe to such a system, the FCC can take action to ensure diversity and competition.

“The finding will provide the commission with additional authority to assure that there is opportunity for additional voices,” Martin was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “It is important that we continue to do all we can to make sure that consumers have more opportunities in terms of their programming and that people who have access to the platform assure there are diverse voices.”

Expected regs would focus on preventing large cablers — such as Comcast and Time Warner — from getting any larger. Also, Martin is likely to force big cablers to offer independent programmers a chance to lease access to their networks.

Martin said these measures would lead to better competition in general, and lower cable rates in particular.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. disputed the assertion that cable has reached 70% of American homes and has also challenged the relevance of the federal provision that would justify FCC action on the matter.

“The provision itself is a relic of decades-old regulation, and there is no basis for reviving it now,” NCTA topper Kyle McSlarrow said in a statement. “Twisting statistics in order to breathe life into this rule is simply another attempt to justify unnecessary government intrusion into a marketplace where competition is thriving and new technology is providing consumers more choices, better programming and exciting new interactive services.”

Martin is said to be preparing to issue the regs before the end of November.

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