FCC chief to adjust plan on media ownership rules

by Paul Davidson, USA TODAY

In a nod to big-media critics, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Monday night said he will temper his planned relaxation of media ownership rules before an FCC vote today.

Kevin Martin said the latest change would make newspaper-broadcast mergers in smaller markets more difficult than under the plan he originally proposed.

Martin said he would go forward with the vote despite a sternly worded letter from members of Congress threatening to nullify the initiative. The FCC's Republican majority supports the plan.

His proposal would relax a 32-year-old rule barring a company from owning a newspaper and broadcast station in the same city. A merger that combines a big daily newspaper and a TV or radio station would be allowed in the 20 largest markets, as long as none of the top four TV stations were involved.

The proposal also would permit a case-by-case review of newspaper-broadcast mergers in smaller markets or those involving bigger TV stations if the deal increased local news coverage or if the newspaper were in "financial distress."

Consumer advocates and FCC Democrats — who generally oppose the entire plan — said allowing such waivers represented a huge loophole that could open the door to mergers anywhere in the USA.

In an interview Monday, Martin said he will propose toughening the waiver criteria. For instance, to be considered for a waiver, a newspaper must have lost money three straight years, and a TV station airing no local news would have to supply at least seven hours a week.

"That's a very high hurdle," Martin says.

Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union said sharply limiting mergers in smaller markets would be "a significant improvement."

Martin's concessions are not likely to appease lawmakers. In a letter to Martin on Monday, 25 senators, including four Republicans, accused him of whisking the plan through without giving the public enough time to comment. Martin unveiled the proposal on Nov. 13.

If he goes ahead with the vote, "we will immediately move legislation that will revoke and nullify the proposed rule," the letter states.

Martin counters that the FCC launched the ownership review 18 months ago. "I think the commission has had a very open and lengthy process," he says.

Legislation to delay the vote was unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce committee last month. But passage by Congress of a bill that can withstand a Senate filibuster and likely veto by President Bush is still considered a long shot.

Separately, the FCC today is also expected to reinstate a rule barring a cable company from serving more than 30% of U.S. households. The move would prevent Comcast, which serves about 29% of homes, from snapping up smaller providers. An appeals court tossed out the ownership limit in 2001, saying the FCC had not justified it.

article originally published at http://www.usatoday.com/money/media/2007-12-17-fcc-ownership_N.htm.

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