Commissioners also weigh in on political files, FM chips at NAB session

LAS VEGAS FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, speaking in a panel discussion at the NAB Show on Tuesday, called for an end to the rule banning cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations.

“You as broadcasters can squeeze your content out of any portal you want. It can be television, it can be radio, it can be satellite, it can be outdoor advertising, it can be smoke signals and skywriting. But the minute you put that same content on a piece of paper, that rule presumes it’s somehow dangerous to the future of democracy,” said McDowell.

“I think it’s an anachronism. I think it’s actually resulted in a reduction in the number of voices in the marketplace for all kinds of media outlets, but especially for minority- (and) women-owned.”

The comments came in a conversation between McDowell, fellow FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and several NAB officers. Clyburn and McDowell struck a generally conciliatory note with broadcasters despite the persistence of several contentious issues during the session.

Both commissioners supported continued relaxation of media ownership rules, in accordance with the 1996 law that requires deregulation as competition increases. McDowell said he’d particularly like to see the rule banning newspaper-broadcaster cross-ownership abolished.

Marci Burdick, chair of NAB television board, agreed with McDowell’s call to end the cross-ownership restriction. Noting FCC chair Julius Genachowski’s message on Monday about applying common sense, she said, “Why does common sense prevail to say Sirius and XM can merge but not newspaper and broadcast cross-ownership or small-market duopoly relief? … It’s frustrating that the commission will recognize the fast move of Internet technology when it’s a spectrum discussion but not when it’s an ownership discussion.”

The crowd was so large for the “Conversation With the Commissioners” session that the start was delayed briefly as organizers opened up extra seating space for the crowd of around 200 people.

The commissioners offered themselves as a conduit for compromise on another current hot-button issue: the proposed requirement for broadcasters to post their “political file,” which logs all correspondence and sales around poltical ads. McDowell noted that broadcasters alone have this requirement, which was imposed by the McCain-Feingold bill.

“I think Congress needs to relook at all this,” said McDowell. “If they want transparency, look at the spenders of the money not just one of many recipients.” That remark was met by loud applause from the aud. On a show of hands, only two of the roughly two-dozen local broadcasters in the audience said they’d ever had a member of the public ask to see their political file.

Clyburn later added that her office was still open for conversation and compromise. McDowell quipped, “So is this one, so you have two-thirds of the FCC right here,” bringing a roar of laughter from the audience.

Caroline Beasly, chair of the NAB radio board, argued in favor of the FCC to encourage or require cell phone makers to activate the FM radio chips many already build in but only activate in other territories.

Noting that FM radio continues to work even when cellular networks are jammed, as they often are in emergencies, Beasly said, “It seems to me the government has a fiduciary responsibility to citizens of the United States to provide access to information, and one way to do that would be put radio chips in cell phones.”

McDowell said he doesn’t believe the government has the power to mandate activation of FM chips but said, “I’m happy to see if we can bring the parties together to arrive at a market-driven solution.”

When the commissioners were asked to predict where they see the media landscape going, Clyburn said, “Everything is and still will be in the mix. The FCC is not going to put anything in place that will pick winners and losers. Platforms, there will be more of them but they will be complimentary. … In terms of how it’s packaged, how it’s augmented and how it’s complimented, that will evolve over time.”

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