FCC May Look into Media Deregulation

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FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has suggested that it's time his commission takes up the issue of media deregulation, to allow for further consolidation of media companies.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

The Rupert Murdochs of the world could be a little bit closer to owning more of your local radio and television stations. This week, the head of the Federal Communications Commission suggested to his colleagues that it's time to move ahead with plans to let big companies own more stations. The FCC tried to loosen media ownership rules four years ago, but was defeated by Congress and the courts.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this report.

NEDA ULABY: FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has not yet made public what he thinks the new rules should be. So far, he has only proposed a timetable. But Martin is a longtime advocate of relaxing the rules that limit how many TV and radio stations any one company can own in major markets.

This decision is so unpopular, the FCC was flooded with millions of critical comments the last time it tried to ease restrictions. That proposal four years ago was decisively smacked down by a bipartisan Senate panel led by Byron Dorgan and Trent Lott.

Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said the two are furious the issue has reemerged.

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): It's the last thing we should be considered. Relaxing media ownership rules? I mean, there are so much concentration in both radio and television and the desire now to allow cross-ownership between newspapers and radio and television. I think it's an unbelievably bad step.

ULABY: Cross-ownership is an especially touchy issue right now. Billionaire Sam Zell is on the brink of closing a deal with the Tribune Company, which owns numerous media outlets.

Relaxed ownership rules would let Zell and other moguls like Rupert Murdoch own TV stations and newspapers in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, something they can't do now.

Dennis Wharton is spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. Regardless of the timing, he believes that media ownership needs what he calls, modest reforms.

Mr. DENNIS WHARTON (Spokesman, National Association of Broadcasters): If you think about it, these rules were adopted when it was a three-network TV world. That's before cable TV, before satellite TV, before the Internet. And those days are long gone.

ULABY: Companies are currently not allowed to own more than eight radio stations in top markets. They're allowed only two TV stations if they're not both in the top four and if there are at least eight other stations in the market.

Critics say that's plenty. Because FCC has been accused of not listening to critics in the past, Chairman Kevin Martin scheduled six public hearings on media ownership around the country, including one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, last April.

Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): I think it's always important to try to make sure that you're working in a manner that gives everyone an opportunity to have input.

ULABY: Martin did not respond to NPR's request for an interview. But FCC Commissioner Michael Copps did. He's against letting big companies own more media outlets. He says consolidation has hurt local coverage and homogenized the news.

Still, Copps says he understands why this might not be a burning issue for Americans worried about health insurance, mortgages and Iraq.

Mr. MICHAEL COPPS (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): To them, I would say if this issue media consolidation is not your number one issue, it ought to be your number two issue because all of those other issues are filtered and are funneled through big media - if they're lucky enough to get in the funnel at all.

ULABY: Copps says he thinks the FCC has bigger problems, like making sure women and minorities are represented in broadcast ownership and preventing local broadcasters from being squeezed out. Legislation is now in the works that may force the FCC to address those issues and, at the least, may delay the latest efforts to relax media ownership rules.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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