FCC action on media ownership may be delayed

by Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times

A plan by the head of the Federal Communications Commission to consider major changes to media ownership rules by year's end could be derailed by growing calls for the agency to first complete a long-running study of how broadcasters serve their local communities.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin took a major step toward wrapping up the study, begun in 2003, by holding the last public hearing on the localism issue Wednesday. Most people who spoke at the hearing, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, urged the FCC to go slowly, echoing recent concerns by some lawmakers after learning of Martin's proposal to try to vote on media ownership changes Dec. 18.

The FCC's two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, joined the chorus, saying they doubted the study could be completed to fit Martin's timetable. "I don't see how that gets done between now and the end of the year if you're going to do it right," Copps said.

Media ownership has split the agency along partisan lines. And Martin's recently revealed plans to try to accelerate the timetable has sharpened the rift.

"A rush to judgment to clear the way for more big media mergers? No way," Copps said at the start of the hearing.

Martin, a Republican, has not proposed any specific changes but is expected to push to allow more media consolidation, such as eliminating a ban on one company owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market.

Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5, long has advocated that change and needs the ban lifted or FCC waivers in Los Angeles and four other markets to close an $8.2-billion deal to take the company private. Tribune faces financial penalties if the deal doesn't close by Dec. 31.

A poll released Wednesday by the Media and Democracy Coalition, an alliance of groups opposed to media consolidation, found that 70% of respondents thought media consolidation was a problem and 57% said it should be illegal for a company to own a newspaper and TV station in the same market.

Martin's proposed Dec. 18 vote is becoming a tougher sell as opposition grows. Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) wrote to Martin last week asking that the localism study be completed, formal policies proposed and the public given 90 days to comment on them, before other media ownership issues are considered.

Also, the FCC has delayed plans to hold its last media ownership public hearing in Seattle on Friday. The hearing probably cannot be held until at least mid-November, jeopardizing Martin's already tight timetable.

Martin said he still was trying for a media ownership vote by the end of the year and that addressing how broadcasters served their communities should be done as part of a broader media ownership package.

"The issues around ownership and the issues around localism are interrelated," he said.

Witnesses at the hearing agreed, saying increased media consolidation led to less local news and community service. But they urged the FCC not to act too quickly. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, a media reform group, said its analysis of FCC data found that markets where companies had waivers to own newspapers and TV stations had less local news than markets that didn't.

The FCC should proceed cautiously, witnesses said.

"I would urge the commission not to fast-track its consideration of the real and lasting impact that further consolidation would have on localism in broadcasting," said radio personality Bob Edwards, national first vice president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

article originally published at http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-fcc1nov01,1,4674802.story?coll=la-headline....

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