Opposition is already starting to build against FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s plans to relax ownership rules. The FCC’s consumer advisory group is expected to jump into the fray tomorrow.
When it comes to revamping the broadcast ownership rules, the FCC appears headed for a prolonged and messy process every bit as prolonged and messy as the process that led to the ill-fated rewrite in 2002-03—ill-fated because the rewrite was undone by a federal appeals court.
Now, it is true that in this go-around the broadcasters will not be adding to the mess. Last time, network affiliates fueled opposition to the whole package of rules changes by digging in against a key component of the FCC proposal to lift the national cap on station ownership to 45% coverage of TV homes.
Congress settled that nasty issue by establishing a 39% cap. So, this time the broadcasters are unified. TV executives either want the FCC to relax the small-market duopoly and newspaper/broadcast crossownership rules or they don’t care and will be happy to sit out the entire proceeding.
But all the consumer and public interest groups will be back in force. They found media ownership to be a great rallying issue that energized the troops and undoubtedly improved their fundraising.
And their protests will resonate once again with the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Ken Adelstein. They became famous (well, as famous as a commissioner can become) during the last rewrite by holding a seemingly endless series of field hearing on media ownership around the country.
These outside groups are already trying to steer the debate. Even journalists are getting in on the act.
Just yesterday, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists called for a new study on minority broadcast ownership. “We are concerned that any action to further deregulate our nation’s broadcast ownership regulations will reduce the number of minority owners,” the group said.
Next to weigh in will be the FCC’s own Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC), created by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell and expanded by current Chairman Kevin Martin. The committee is nothing by trouble for broadcasters. Filled with folks who see broadcasting as some sort of quasi-governmental service, it is already calling for the FCC to establish new public interest obligations for DTV.
The committee meets tomorrow and is likely to adopt a parcel of recommendations on how the FCC should proceed on ownership. The recommendations are aimed at promoting “core values of localism, competition and diversity that will expand the multiplicity of voices and choices.”
The recommendations include calls for more independent research on media concentration and a series of hearings nationwide to “engage the American people on the future of their media and to gain a better understanding of the impact of media concentration on our communities.”
Plus, the proposal says the agency should address 11 key issues including:
How will consumer interests be considered in the broadcast license renewal process?
What are the impacts of ownership on minority and female participation?
What does concentration mean for consumer access to small local broadcasters?
Do consumers deserve more independent programming?
Most worrisome for broadcasters, the proposal also asks: Will ownership concentration increase indecency and so impact consumer choice? You can count on Commissioner Copps to pursue that issue. He’s already expressed his concerns about a link between media consolidation and indecency.
Earlier this week, Chairman Martin told the Newspaper Association of America that the newspaper/broadcast crossownership ban needs to go, especially in today’s marketplace where the prohibition may “adversely impact the quality of news and localism.”
Martin appears determined to pursue ownership deregulation. And he should have the necessary two other votes in his fellow Republican commissioners, Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell. That is, of course, if McDowell can win Senate approval for the job. His nomination is currently hung up in Hill politics that have nothing to do with him or his qualifications.
But those outsiders can cause plenty of trouble. They could generate enough noise that Republican members of Congress or even the White House might tell Martin to cool it. The last thing they want to do is hand Democrats another issue, especially one that paints Republicans as the lap dogs of Big Media. The Republican base hates Big Media.
Don’t forget, come November the situation could get even stickier, especially if the Democrats take either one or both houses of Congress. If that happens, broadcasters know Democrats won’t be eager to see any further deregulatory action at the FCC, at least not without a price tag—most likely stiffer public interest obligations.
Broadcasters may win relief of media ownership rules that they maintain they need to remain competitive. Just remember these two words: prolonged and messy.
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