FCC's Copps airs opposition to Tribune deal

by Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune

Michael Copps, one of the two Democrats on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, indicated Thursday he hopes to be a roadblock to Tribune Co.'s plan to go private by year's end, or at the very least will be a speed bump to the transaction.

Tribune Co., which owns this paper, WGN-Ch. 9, WGN-AM 720 as well as other media properties around the country, needs temporary waivers from the FCC allowing its continued ownership of both broadcast outlets and papers in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, South Florida and Hartford, Conn., while the commission is in the process of weighing more permanent rule changes.

Without that approval, the $34-per-share deal cannot close as currently structured by billionaire Sam Zell.

"The Tribune [deal] would be a steep climb for me, given my history of concerns over consolidation," Copps told a handful of reporters at a breakfast briefing, according to a Dow Jones report. "I do not buy into this argument that you might be considering rules changes, ergo you can't apply the current rules to current pending applications."

Copps' shot across Tribune Co.'s bow came a week after FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, told the Chicago Tribune's editorial board that he saw "many positive aspects" of Tribune's cross-ownership in this city. Later that same day, however, the FCC staged a public hearing in Chicago on media ownership rules, where opposition to media consolidation and calls for greater minority representation were heard.

Typically, FCC members are guarded in their public comments concerning matters before the commission, so as to not make it appear as though the deliberative process is predetermined.

But Copps not only weighed in on Tribune, he voiced concerns over the proposed XM-Sirius Satellite Radio merger and suggested he would like to see the FCC consider the acquisition of Dow Jones & Co. by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

The Federal Trade Commission signed off on the Dow Jones deal in August and Martin has shown no indication he thinks the deal belongs on the FCC's agenda. But Copps said he would like the commission to examine its effect on the New York market, home base to Dow Jones' Wall Street Journal and where Murdoch already has a waiver allowing News Corp. to own the New York Post as well as two television stations.

As for the merger of the pay-radio services, even with XM and Sirius saying they will hold the line on pricing and offer stations on an a la carte basis, Copps told the reporters he isn't sure a merger is in the public interest and, like the Tribune Co. transaction, would face a "steep climb" in his view.

Whether Copps, vocal as he is, can be persuasive enough to advance those views is far from certain. But he may just want to slow things enough so the new media rules expected next year are delayed past the 2008 elections.

Martin has said he expects the Tribune temporary waivers to be decided in the fourth quarter.

When FCC rule revisions were overturned four years ago, the court upheld the commission's move to get rid of its absolute ban on media cross-ownership. That gives Shaun Sheehan, Tribune's vice president for Washington Affairs, confidence.

"When it came to my issue, the court said the commission pretty much got it right," he said. "Given those things, I remain optimistic. ... If Tribune is required to spin off its pieces, a lot of superior broadcast stations would be sold and I don't see how that would serve the public interest."

WATCH EARLY, WATCH OFTEN: In response to complaints from some ad buyers and networks, Nielsen Media Research already is having second thoughts about a rule change introduced this week with little fanfare that enables a TV network to count the combined viewership for multiple broadcasts of the same show in a calendar week as if they were a single telecast, so long as the program has the same ad content in each airing.

NBC intends to avail itself of the new rule this week, airing Monday's season debut of "Heroes" again on Saturday. The network will be able to claim the cumulative audience for Monday's telecast and the Saturday hour will vanish from the books.

While NBC is only taking advantage of the opportunity Nielsen created in an attempt to prepare for technological advances that will allow multiple airings of programs on digital subchannels, the complaints have Nielsen reconsidering the change.

article originally published at http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-fri_phil0928sep28,0,5560212.column.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey