Watchdogs have been howling at the moon for about a month now, in preparation for the nefarious plans of FCC Chairman Kevin (R) to gift-wrap what’s left of the broadcast spectrum and hand it over to the nation’s biggest communications companies. It turns out, however, that his one modest proposal is to allow newspapers to have a limited broadcast presence, and that only in the nation’s top 20 media markets.
And even that combination would be highly restricted. A newspaper would be limited to one broadcast outlet, and if it’s a television station, any of the top four in the market would be out of bounds. And there would have to be a minimum of eight independent media voices after the transaction closes. Martin hangs this limited cross-ownership rule relaxation in part on the Third Circuit’s determination that a "blanket ban" on such combos was no longer in the public interest.
All other aspects of the 2003 Michael Powell rulemaking are jettisoned.
Waivers will be considered for newspaper/broadcast combos in smaller markets, but Martin told reporters that there would be a strong presumption against allowing them to exist. Asked specifically about Tribune combinations, Martin said it was possible that a Commission vote on the new rule could happen within the framework of its pending sale to an ESOP headed by Sam Zell, but that the transaction’s fate or schedule is not part of the FCC’s thinking. He also said that the cross-ownership pairing in Hartford would face difficulty getting a waiver. On the other hand, he expected since grandfathered pairings were granted to certain combinations back in 1975 under a flat cross-ownership ban, he felt this modest relaxation of the rules would support continuing them going forward.
Martin said he would still try for a vote on December 18th. He also said that the final field forum on localism has been held, and that a report has been written and is being circulated on the 8th Floor. He will try to establish reporting requirements so a body of evidence can be amassed on how stations serve the public interest in their local communities. Similarly, an item on increasing minority/female station ownership is also completed; in its case, it’s been kicking around the 8th Floor since March.
Martin seemed surprised that the watchdog community and some members of Congress were up in arms. Asked if he thinks Congress will go along, he said. "I certainly hope so, but I had always planned on doing something narrow, and I’ve been telling people that. I’ve been saying that newspapers are kind of like the biggest TV in the market and should be treated as such."
RBR/TVBR observation: This really, truly is a very modest piece of deregulation. It’s so small you’d think the watchdog community would accept it as a major victory and move on to help craft the localism and minority ownership proceedings to their liking. It will come as bad news to small market television operators hoping to get a chance to build duopolies, and it may well cause big problems for any small market cross-ownership combo currently in existence. Watchdog Media
Access Project has made a cottage industry out of challenging cross-owned license renewals, so that’ll be something to watch. The big question is whether there will be pushback from the broadcast and newspaper trade associations, if indeed there is anything to be gained if they try.