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Smaller stakes, bigger outcry as regulators consider new media rules

    WASHINGTON — For the second time in four years, the government is rewriting media ownership rules, a process that probably will allow big companies to get even bigger.
    While the stakes this time are smaller, the furor surrounding the process has, if anything, grown.
    Democratic members of the Federal Communications Commission have accused the chairman, Republican Kevin Martin, of calling public hearings without adequate notice and rushing the review process. Martin wants a vote by year’s end.
    Well-organized opponents have staged protests, attacked the FCC’s economic studies as biased in favor of liberalizing the rules and complained that the agency is not doing enough to promote minority ownership.
    Congress is getting involved, too. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee planned to hear testimony on the issues Thursday. A House panel has scheduled a hearing for Dec. 6.
    The FCC’s final public hearing on media ownership is set for Friday in Seattle.
    Thanks to Congress, the debate this time does not include the issue that galvanized opposition to media consolidation in 2003: a national audience cap on television broadcasters.
    ‘‘The national ownership cap was really a big, big fight last time,’’ said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. ‘‘You had the far right and the far left coalescing around this sort of perfect storm.’’
    The FCC voted to raise the cap from 35 percent to 45 percent. It followed intense lobbying from Viacom Inc., then-owner of CBS, which was at 38 percent, and News Corp., owner of Fox Broadcasting Inc. which was at 39 percent.
    Following the vote, Congress set the cap at 39 percent.
    The priority for broadcasters now has shifted to two other rules: A prohibition against a radio or television broadcaster from owning a daily newspaper in the same community, and a ban on a single company owning two television stations in the same market, except in certain circumstances.
    The newspaper-broadcast ban is important for the National Newspaper Association and broadcasters such as Tribune Co. and Media General Inc., which say the rule is an anachronism. They contend that if it were lifted, it would lead to more news on local broadcast stations.
    Gene Kimmelman, who has followed media ownership issues for Consumers Union, the nonprofit owner of Consumer Reports magazine, said the newspaper ban is pivotal.
    ‘‘The issue at stake is even more important than the previous debate because most citizens turn to their local newspaper and local broadcasters for news about their community,’’ he said. ‘‘Allowing them to combine could enable one company to dominate the presentation of local news.’’
    Broadcasters also want the FCC to eliminate the rule that prevents them from owning more than one television station in a single market.
    Martin wants to schedule a vote on the rules Dec. 18. His position is no mystery; he was part of the 3-2 Republican majority that voted to loosen the rules in 2003.
    Martin wrote at the time wrote that he was ‘‘particularly pleased’’ the commission eased the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule. He noted that it was ‘‘based on a market structure that bears almost no resemblance to the current environment.’’
    Most of the rules the commissioners passed in 2003 were later tossed out by a federal appeals court.
    Based on his public statements, Martin appears likely to propose allowing broadcasters to own newspapers in the largest markets, but with limits in smaller markets.
    He probably will be joined by Republicans Robert McDowell, who has displayed a deregulatory agenda in his short tenure, and Deborah Taylor Tate, who generally votes with the chairman.
    The two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, voted against the media rules in 2003, and have been vocal this time, too. Most recently, they criticized Martin for scheduling the Seattle hearing with only five days’ notice.
    ‘‘Clearly, the rush is on to push media consolidation to a quick and ill-considered vote,’’ they wrote in a joint statement. ‘‘This is outrageous and not how important media policy should be made.’’
 

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