Ahead of the bell: FCC oversight

[Associated Press]

A Senate committee on Thursday will hold a general oversight hearing on the Federal Communications Commission, but will likely focus on a proposed media ownership rule the agency will vote on next week.

All five FCC commissioners are scheduled to testify before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which can address any issue under the agency's jurisdiction.

But the issue most likely to be addressed is FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's cross-media ownership proposal, released Nov. 13. It would allow a radio or television broadcaster to own a newspaper, but only in the nation's 20 largest markets.

Since then, the agency's two Democratic commissioners, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, have argued the proposal has a loophole that would allow newspapers and broadcast stations to merge in any size market. In a strongly worded statement released Wednesday, they called for more public input "rather than the callous disregard exhibited thus far" and deemed the proposal a "mish-mash of half-baked ideas."

While Martin denied the loophole's existence during a House hearing last week, he said he's willing to change the proposal's wording to ensure that such deals face a higher approval standard.

Last week, the Senate Commerce committee, which is chaired by Sen. Daniel Inouye, approved a bill that would delay adoption of Martin's proposed rule for six months until the agency completes further studies.

But it may be too late. The FCC has scheduled a vote on the media ownership proposal at its Dec. 18 meeting.

The Senate committee could also address the FCC's vote next week on a proposal to cap the number of customers a single cable television company may serve.

Martin has proposed setting a 30 percent ownership limit, similar to one a federal court rejected in 2001, when it said the agency failed to adequately justify its reasoning.

The rule is designed to limit a cable TV's potential monopoly power. Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable company, has a nationwide market share of 27 percent.

The Senate committee might also focus on the FCC's involvement in the federally mandated nationwide transition from analog to digital TV. That transition faces serious challenges when it comes to public awareness, the Government Accountability Office said in report released Wednesday.

Martin could find himself on the agenda on Thursday. The chairman has come under fire from within the agency and on Capitol Hill not only for his proposals but also for his chronic delaying of meetings and cherry-picking of data to justify his positions.

article originally published at http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D8TGHF280.htm.

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