Paper granted temporary waivers from ban

FCC topper Kevin Martin has come up with a plan to allow the $8.2 billion acquisition of Tribune Co. to be completed on sked by year’s end, and address an issue that has been a thorn in Tribune’s side for more than a decade: the commission’s ban on ownership of a TV station and newspaper in the same market.

In a hastily skedded conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Martin said he has proposed that Tribune be granted temporary waivers from the agency’s newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban so that the planned sale of the media giant can go through before the end of the year. Martin has skedded a commission vote on the waivers for Friday.

Tribune, which owns newspapers and TV stations in five markets, has told the FCC that absent waivers granted this month, the deal for real estate tycoon Sam Zell to take over the company as part of a complex employee-buyout of the company could easily unravel, given that Tribune would be on the hook for penalties if the acquisition isn’t completed by Dec. 31.

Martin has skedded a full commission vote on Dec. 18 on whether to ease the FCC’s cross-ownership ban in general in the top 20 markets in the country. If the FCC were to approve that, Tribune would be released from needing waivers in four of its five markets. The fifth — in Hartford, Conn. — would still require a waiver since it is not among the top 20.

But Tribune has argued that it needs at least three weeks to close its deal, thus a Dec. 18 vote would come too late, and Hartford would still be an issue. Tribune in a statement said it was “pleased” with Martin’s proposal and the FCC’s response to the company’s dilemma by holding the vote on Friday.

Martin declined to say Wednesday if his proposed temporary waivers for Tribune would include the Hartford market.

Tribune, which has lobbied for years for an end to the newspaper-TV cross-ownership ban, had asked for indefinite waivers, but Martin told reporters he didn’t think that was a good idea since the commission was not in the habit of making such a specific exception. Instead, he proposed that waivers be granted for a period of two years or for six months following the conclusion of any litigation over the waivers, whichever period is longer.

He said he wanted the waivers enacted so that media companies would not be forced to divest now when, on Dec. 18, the commission may vote to ease the cross-ownership ban. But regardless of whether the commission votes to ease the ban, Martin said, he felt the waivers were necessary.

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