Seattle Media await FCC decision

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Area newspapers and broadcast stations could be affected

By Todd Bishop, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Owners of the Seattle area's newspapers and broadcast stations will be watching closely Monday as the Federal Communications Commission considers relaxing or repealing the government's longstanding limits on media ownership.


Across the United States, the anticipated changes are expected to stir waves of consolidation, as media companies take advantage of their newfound freedom to buy and swap newspapers, television stations and radio stations and improve their positions in specific markets.

In the Seattle area, some broadcast executives believe that a change in ownership rules could create further consolidation in the region's radio market, already dominated by a few large corporations. And others think that the struggle between the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times might take a new twist if the FCC removes a ban on common ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same city.

But for now, it's all guesswork. Even to many industry veterans, it isn't clear exactly how the changes will play out in the Seattle market.
"I just don't think there are simple answers," said William Krippaehne Jr., president and chief executive of Seattle-based Fisher Communications Inc., which owns TV and radio stations including KOMO/4 and KOMO-AM in Seattle.

The concept of relaxing ownership limits has drawn widespread criticism from consumer groups and smaller companies who warn that placing newspapers and broadcast outlets under control of even fewer companies would hinder democracy and discourse. Opponents of the changes include the Seattle City Council and state Attorney General Christine Gregoire.

Some speculation in Seattle has focused on whether The Hearst Corp., owner of the P-I, might seek to buy KOMO/4 from Fisher if the agency lifts the ban on "cross-ownership" of newspapers and television stations in one market. Industry insiders cited Hearst as a potential buyer when Fisher last year explored selling all or part of the company.

However, Krippaehne said, "I can say without equivocation that there have been no conversations between Fisher and Hearst in this regard."

The Hearst Corp. and its majority-owned television company, Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., have both filed comments with the FCC urging repeal of the newspaper-television cross-ownership ban.

The economic advantages of owning a newspaper and TV station in the same city could give Hearst greater incentive to remain in the Seattle market and continue to fight The Seattle Times Co.'s efforts to dissolve the newspapers' 20-year-old joint operating agreement, or JOA.

However, the economic advantages of cross-ownership would be minimal for Hearst in Seattle, because The Seattle Times Co. controls advertising and circulation for both papers under the JOA, said Times Publisher Frank Blethen, a vocal opponent of lifting the cross-ownership ban and other ownership limits.

In Seattle radio, Entercom Communications Corp. owns eight stations, the maximum allowed in any one market under one of the current limits the FCC is evaluating. Clear Channel Communications has five Seattle-area stations.

"I would expect most of our radio within the next five years to be in the hands of no more than three owners," said John Sandifer, executive director of the Seattle local of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. "It's almost the case now. But given the opportunity they'll snap up all the rest of them."

Further consolidation is less likely in Seattle's television market, in part because there are relatively few stations to begin with, said Mark Allen, president and CEO of the Washington State Association of Broadcasters. In addition, two companies already own multiple broadcast TV stations: Belo Corp, with KING/5 and KONG/16; and Tribune Co., with KCPQ/13 and KTWB/22.

One rule the FCC is weighing would prevent any company from reaching more than 35 percent of the nation's TV households. But an easing of that rule wouldn't have much of an effect immediately, because typically, "sellers put more value on their property than buyers are willing to pay," said Dave Lougee, president and general manager of KING-TV, KONG-TV and Northwest Cable News.

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