FCC's Martin wants to relax ownership ban


UPDATED 8:46 p.m. PT Nov. 13, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the FCC released a plan Tuesday that eases the decades-old rule barring common ownership of a TV station and newspaper in the same market.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin's proposal instructs the agency to the "presumption" that newspaper-TV combinations in the top 20 markets are in the public interest. Combinations outside of the top 20 markets could still be allowed but would face a higher hurdle at the commission, Martin said.

"It is important to us to recognize in our rules that there is a significantly different media landscape, particularly for newspapers, than there was when we put the rule in place in 1975," he told reporters.

The combos in the top 20 would only be allowed if there remained eight or more "independent voices" in the market and the station being purchased was not among the four most-watched stations. The companies also would have to show that the combined entity would increase the amount of local news in the market and that both outlets will continue to exercise independent news judgment.

While the change still has to be approved by the full commission, Martin likely can count on the votes of the two other Republican commissioners, Robert McDowell and Deborah Tate. Martin expects a vote on the issue Dec. 18.

While Martin described the proposal as "moderate and fair," Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein said that was a gross mischaracterization.

"This is portrayed as a moderate proposal, but it is a wolf in sheep's clothing," they said. "The proposal could repeal the ban in every market in America, not just the top 20."

The commissioners said the waiver process allows even small markets to come under the thumb of the big media companies.

While the ownership revisions are much less striking than those approved in 2003 and later struck down by the courts, they still face some stiff opposition.

Lawmakers and public-interest groups contend that the changes will leave many people speechless.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., a leading voice on the issue in Congress, said Martin "has yet to make the case for why any further media consolidation is necessary."

He and Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., plan to push legislation that could prevent the commission from considering the Martin plan.

While the FCC eased more rules in its 2003 order, including one allowing a company to own more than one TV station in a single market and raising the limit on the number of radio stations one company could own, Martin is taking a more limited approach.

He chose to focus on the newspaper rule only and declined to act on other media ownership rules that are up for consideration, telling reporters that congressional action easing the radio ownership rules and TV duopoly rules in 1996 went far enough.

"I'm not seeking further ownership changes to the television duopoly rule and the radio ownership cap," he said. "The newspaper rule was the only one that hasn't been relaxed."

Allowing newspapers to combine newspaper and broadcast operations would help them remain viable because they would be able to share operational costs across multiple platforms, he said.

Martin's proposal would provide relief in four of the five markets where Tribune owns broadcast stations and newspapers. But the company wants temporary waivers, saying a Dec. 18 vote is too late and might jeopardize financing for its deal.

Under Martin's proposal, Tribune would have to sell off assets in Hartford, Conn., a sub-top 20 market, where it owns the Hartford Courant and a number of television stations.

Martin would not speak specifically to the Tribune transaction but said the commission has said previously that it will not grant temporary waivers during the ownership proceeding.

The Newspaper Association of America, which has lobbied against the ban for years, said Martin needed to go further.

"The radical and irreversible market changes that have occurred in every community since this rule was adopted more than 30 years ago have extinguished any basis for this across-the-board ban," NAA president and CEO John Sturm said. "The ban itself should be extinguished as well."