FCC head tips hand on dereg

Cross-ownership restrictions to be lifted

WASHINGTON — FCC topper Michael Powell on Monday gave his colleagues a sneak peak at the sweeping changes he wants to make to federal media ownership rules.

The first glance confirmed what many critics of deregulation have feared: Powell wants to significantly relax the major regs, handing media congloms more power than ever to control the flow of information to the public.

Companies could own combinations of newspapers and television and radio stations in the same city, and any one company could control TV stations reaching nearly half of the national audience.

The proposal was not released to the public, but two government officials who saw it described the contents to the Associated Press.

The plan, written by Powell’s staff, was delivered to the five commissioners. They have until June 2, when a vote is skedded, to consider the recommendations.

Increased reach

Among the proposals is one to allow a single company to own TV stations that reach 45% of U.S. households, a dramatic jump from the current 35%. The major networks favor eliminating the cap, but the National Assn. of Broadcasters has fought to retain it.

Two existing “cross-ownership” rules — one preventing a company from owning a newspaper and a radio or television station in the same market and another involving ownership of radio and TV stations in the same market — would be rolled into a single rule that lifts most of the existing restrictions, the officials said.

Cross-ownership would be allowed in large and medium markets, but would face restrictions or bans in small markets.

The FCC is required by law to consider changes to the decades-old rules. Federal law also forced Powell to circulate a blueprint of his plan Monday, three-weeks before the vote.

Powell and the two other Republican commissioners support easing regulations and allowing individual companies to hold a greater stake in local and national media markets.

Democrats displeased

But Democratic commish Michael Copps has opposed broad changes to the rules, and he and fellow Democrat Jonathan Adelstein have railed against the “secretive” way Powell has conducted the process. Powell, they argue, has refused to provide the public a draft of the rule changes and had failed to offer his colleagues a detailed account before Monday.

Powell has denied keeping his colleagues in dark. In fact, he said he has offered them repeated opportunities to meet and discuss the issue.

The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing today to examine the proposed rules changes, and Adelstein and Copps will discuss the topic at a news conference afterward.

Consumer groups also have argued that relaxing the rules will unleash a flood of mergers and takeovers, which will harm competition and stifle the diversity of views expressed in the media.

In preparation for the hearing, consumer groups Monday provided an analysis they believe demonstrates that television and newspaper markets are too concentrated already.

“Encouraging further concentration . . . would reduce the prospects for competition in local markets, diminish the provision of local news and information and limit the diversity of local perspectives,” said Mark Cooper, head of the Consumer Federation of America.

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