Senate to examine FCC media rules


WASHINGTON -- FCC chairman Kevin Martin goes into the firing line again Thursday as the Senate Commerce Committee takes a hard look at his plans to reshape the media landscape.

Martin is likely to find himself under attack from both the left and the right over proposals he is pushing the commission to approve on Dec. 18 that would significantly unfetter media companies that wish to own both newspapers and TV stations in the same market, while at the same time he is pushing a rule that would prevent any cable company from serving more than 30% of pay-TV subscribers nationally

His push to alter the rules, in a particular the newspaper-TV station cross ownership ban, are garnering considerable controversy as no one seems to like the plan.

Broadcasters and newspaper publishers have criticized the Martin plan to allow one company to own a newspaper and TV station in the top 20 markets if the TV station is not among the top four stations in that city as being too tame. The Tribune Co., which has the most at stake in the cross-ownership battle, has asked the federal appeals court to strike down the order, even as Martin's proposal appeared to be a gift to the company which numbers the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and several TV stations among its properties.

The company argues that temporary waivers allowing the combinations should be permanent. The waivers were necessary because FCC rules generally prohibit one company from owning both a broadcast station and a daily newspaper in the same market. The commission has allowed exceptions but does not permit any existing cross-media combinations to be transferred to new owners.

Tribune's lawsuit amounts to a legal maneuver to get the court strike down the cross-ownership ban entirely.

The FCC's waivers required Tribune to sell properties within two years or until six months after all litigation related to the agency's overall media ownership rules is complete, whichever takes longest

The affected combinations are in New York, Los Angeles, Hartford-New Haven, Conn., and Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Tribune received a permanent waiver in Chicago.

At the same time people who fear that easing the rule will concentrate too much media power in too little hands contend that the proposal is too bold.

In a late filing with the FCC a coalition of consumer groups attacked the proposal.

"Unless Chairman Martin remedies procedural flaws, eliminates dangerous and vague exceptions, and thoroughly expands meaningful minority ownership and local programming needs, his plan will not serve the public interest or meet minimum legal fairness requirements for FCC rules," said a statement from Free Press, Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union.

While the debate over media concentration issues does not break down exactly on party lines, more Democrats appear to support tougher controls than do Republicans.

Martin likely to run into a tough time before the committee as it has already approved legislation that would require the FCC to postpone action for up to six months.

The chairman's plan to impose the 30% ceiling on cable subscribers has also come under attack.

FCC Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are expected to join Martin, giving him the 3-2 vote he needs to get it through the commission. It is unclear whether FCC Republicans Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell will end up voting with Martin.

The 30% cap was struck down by a federal court in 2001. Comcast has denounced Martin's cable ownership cap as totally unjustified given a video market that is far more competitive today than it was six years ago. Comcast is highly likely to take the FCC to court.

In another late filing with the commission, Comcast argued that imposing a de-facto ownership limit on cable operators while lifting the newspaper-TV cross ownership ban makes no sense.

"The very same types of concerns that appear to be animating the chairman's proposal to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule compel the conclusion that a 30% cap on cable ownership can no longer be justifies," the company wrote.