Watchdogs grumble as FCC weighs media regs

Pending vote on ownership rules draws criticism from biz, advocates

FCC commissioners are once again weighing a proposal to relax media ownership rules, a process that already has drawn some suspicion from public interest groups that the changes will go too far and grumblings from the industry that they won’t go far enough.

The 180-page proposal — which FCC chairman Julius Genachowski distributed to fellow commissioners last week — has not been publicly released. But a spokesman for the FCC said that the proposal is to “streamline and modernize” the rules, including “eliminating outdated prohibitions on newspaper-radio and TV-radio cross ownership.”

In December, the FCC released an outline of a series of proposals that allowed for TV stations and newspapers in the top 20 markets to combine, under a set of conditions, while continuing to restrict ownership in smaller markets. Whether that proposal ultimately is part of a final rule change remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, there were some hints that other commissioners will push for more sweeping changes. After the FCC on Friday agreed to extend long-standing waivers for Tribune Co.’s ownership of stations and newspapers in five markets, commissioner Robert McDowell issued a statement on Friday saying that “no rules should exist to which waivers should need to be granted.

“In that spirit, while such rules still reside on our books, the commission should grant waivers permanently and not in miniscule one-year segments that require speakers to crawl back to the government for permission to speak,” said McDowell, a Republican appointee.

Media congloms have long called for not just relaxation of rules restricting ownership of a newspaper and radio station in the same market, and a TV and radio station in the same city, but even greater relaxation of rules on ownership of newspapers and TV stations. Media companies also have called for relaxing “duopoly” restrictions on owning two stations in the same market, as the FCC bans mergers among a city’s top four stations and weighs whether at least eight major media outlets, or “voices,” are in that market.

The major rationale for relaxing the rules has been the explosion of digital options, sending many newspapers into a tailspin that has increased pressure to reduce costs. Last year, the FCC’s report on the ownership rules included concerns that the Internet had yet to become so ubiquitous, particularly in low-income communities, as to warrant more sweeping changes. And last week, the FCC released a report that showed that minority ownership of TV stations is decreasing, even as minorities are making up a greater share of the population.

The FCC’s last effort to relax the rules, under then-chairman Kevin Martin, was struck down by a federal appellate court last year after it ruled that the commission failed to give adequate public notice when it made the change in 2007. The FCC then repealed its blanket ban on newspaper and broadcast cross-ownership, in favor of a case-by-case approach under a set of guidelines.

The public interest group Free Press is chiding Genachowski for the latest effort to relax the rules, warning of “massive consolidation in all markets, reduction in the number of local news stations, and, in combination with other Genachowski policies, a major decline in female and minority ownership.”

The org also is objecting to the way the proposal is being evaluated, warning that the “FCC is trying to keep details secret until vote.”

Still unclear is when or how the rules will come to a vote. There have been reports that it is likely at the December meeting, but no agenda has been released yet.