Tribune double jeopardy

Copps: FCC to look at duopolies

Synergize or sell: That's the $8.2 billion question for Sam Zell.

And if a gentle reminder from FCC commissioner Michael Copps proves any influence, the billionaire investor might be more inclined to dispose of the odd TV station or two after acquiring the Tribune media group.

Despite FCC prohibitions, Tribune has continued to operate both TV stations and newspapers in markets including Los Angeles — where it owns KTLA and the Los Angeles Times — since acquiring Times Mirror's media properties in 2000. Back then, many observers expected limits on such situations to be eliminated, but that hasn't happened.

Instead, temporary waivers granted to complete the merger have remained in place much longer than ever intended, Copps said in an interview Wednesday.

"We don't always take these things with the seriousness that we should," he said, suggesting waivers on media-ownership rules are theoretically intended to run only one year.

Zell hopes to complete his leveraged buyout of Tribune in the second quarter, but the planned change of ownership at the company will automatically trigger a review of its market duopolies, Copps noted.

The commissioner added that he's keeping an open mind on the issue.

"I'm not about to prejudge it," Copps said. "But (media-ownership issues) have been among my top priorities since coming to the commission in 2001."

Tribune operates 11 newspapers and 23 TV stations. It also owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team but has said it will sell the club after this season.

One of two minority Democrats on the five-member commission, Copps traveled to Los Angeles a day after participating in the National Association of Broadcasters confab in Las Vegas. He is set to deliver the keynote address today at the USC Annenberg Walter Cronkite Awards.

Copps said the commission primarily will seek a detailed understanding from Zell of just one thing in its review of Tribune duopolies.

"The over-arching question is, 'How does this affect the public interest?' " Copps said. "What effect has the cross ownership had on the quality of broadcasting and publishing?"

Although the FCC's Republican majority might consider viewing such business duopolies in a more favorable light, chairman Kevin Martin has been careful in recent remarks to avoid tipping his hand on the issue. The commission has been holding a series of regional reviews of media-ownership regs.
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