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Grill session: Commissioners speak

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin (R) remains convinced that his plan to eliminate cross-ownership restrictions in the top 20 markets, with no further deregulatory proposals, is moderate and justified. But the two Democrats on the Commission see the waiver process as a road to cross-ownership in markets of all sizes.

Martin admitted that the Third Circuit sent back the 6/2/03 deregulatory package of Michael Powell (supported by Martin and former Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy and opposed by Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein). The court opinion noted that the ban on cross-ownership was inappropriate but needed better justification, so he came up with a limited elimination of it and left all other deregulatory proposals of the Powell effort out of it completely. He took pains to include expert testimony and public input. Meanwhile, he has the Commission working on proposals to increase localism and minority/female/SDB ownership.

Michael Copps (D) and Jonathan Adelstein (D) believe that the proposal to eliminate out the top 20 cross-ownership restriction unfortunately include provisions for waivers to allow such combinations anywhere. The vagueness of the review process, coupled with his view of the FCC's track record on such things led to his belief that cross-owned clusters would be springing up everywhere to the detriment of diversity of viewpoint. They want localism and minority proceedings completed before moving on the any deregulatory actions.

Robert McDowell argued that the proceeding has already been more than adequate to justify action, with ample opportunity for concerned people to provide input. He noted a Congressional mandate on the books predisposing the elimination of unnecessary regulation, and suggested that the explosion of new media has antiquated many broadcast rules. Deborah Taylor Tate (R) simply noted the controversial nature of the issue and said she was there to hear what members of Congress had to say.

Commissioner testimony summaries:

* Kevin Martin (R): FCC: Competition, diversity and localism are keys to guaranteeing a robust marketplace of ideas. Cross-ownership was the one part of the Powell dereg attempts that the Third Circuit did not overturn, but rather noted that reasoned analysis supported such combinations. Martin argues that his attempt to assess the rules has taken great pains to include the public and to be transparent. Completed localism proceeding. Finally, even though not required to, FCC published the text of the one rule up for change in advance. Newspapers sucking wind. FCC cross-ownership rule hasn't been updated in three over decades. Characterizes top-20 focus as a relatively minor change. Commission upgraded status of LPFM, and is looking to increase SDB participation in broadcast ownership. Adopts majority of items submitted by diversity watchdogs. Media ownership rules are the most contentious issue to come before the Commission.

* Michael Copps (D): FCC is lurching dangerously off course, and only Congressional oversight can get us back on track. FCC is flubbing DTV transition. Martin's proposal is described as modest, but the change in the top 20 markets can well apply in any market via waivers -- Copps has no confidence that FCC will presume against waivers when requests come up. We need a process that allays distrust, not causes it. Haven't addressed minority situation. What we have here is an unseemly rush to judgment, with the stubbornly-pursued 12/18/07 deadline.

* Deborah Taylor Tate (R): FCC deals with wide range of issues which affect competitiveness of US communications, in some cases internationally. We're here to hear from Congress on media ownership. Public forums allowed citizens to have unprecedented access to government officials to discuss policy. Troubled by alarmingly low rates of minority and female ownership.

* Jonathan Adelstein (D): No issue on our agenda has more implication of our future as a democracy than this one. People everywhere we've gone do not want their sources of information controlled by just a handful of companies. Disappointing to see the Commission proceed without due deference to the public. Like the mere five-day notice given for the Seattle public forum. People came out anyway, begged Commission not to relax the rules, and the next day the Chairman proposed to relax the rules anyway. As Copps said, proposal is not modest, and opens up all markets to cross-ownership. Study of FCC data shows that cross-owned combinations actually suppress amount of total local news in the market where it exist. Internet is affecting revenues, but newspapers still operate with a healthy profit margin. First things first -- improve localism and diversity before considering further deregulation. Follow the Senate schedule as approved by the its Commerce Committee yesterday.

* Robert McDowell (R): First Amendment, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. Back then the primary medium was paper. Now there's an explosion of options. Commission's exploration of the rules this time around has been unprecedented. Field hearings: 115 expert panelists, many concerned citizens. Previous study began in 2002, only to be derailed by Third Circuit, which still said cross-ownership ban may be unwarranted. According to law, FCC must review rules with an eye to eliminating any which are no longer needed. New technology empowers the sovereignty of the individual, no matter who you are.






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