By Phil Rosenthal
Published June 22, 2006
The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday it will begin the process of reviewing media ownership rules, kicking off a new debate on media consolidation and the impact it has had on diversity of news coverage.
For the FCC the review is a chance to decide whether a trend in the media business should be restrained.
At stake is the issue of how many television stations and radio outlets a company can own and whether they can control newspapers and broadcast outlets in a single market. For media companies, including Chicago-based Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune, the rules are of critical importance. It is testing the limits of cross-ownership in several markets, including New York and Los Angeles.
Without a loosening of FCC restrictions, it could be forced to sell off some of its properties. Its ownership of TV and radio stations and newspapers in Chicago is grandfathered and not in jeopardy.
"Ten years ago we talked about ourselves as being a newspaper publisher or a TV broadcaster. Today we'd say we're an information provider in markets," said Marshall Morton, president and chief executive of Media General Inc., a Virginia-based company that owns more than two dozen TV stations and several newspapers."
To be restricted from giving you the information that we've got because the FCC decides it's not a good idea we think is like tying an arm behind our back. So cross-ownership is very important," he said.
In 2003 the FCC adopted new rules giving media companies more freedom to own multiple media properties in the same markets. That led to a firestorm of comments from groups concerned about the lack of diversity in the media, while media companies lobbied aggressively to retain those rules.
A year later a federal appeals court in June 2004 overturned key aspects of those rules.
The issue is being revisited because the FCC must conduct a review of its broadcast ownership rules every four years, and because the commission needs to address the concerns of the appeals court.
The rulemaking process starts anew as the media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. Now, nearly 75 percent of homes that connect to the Internet have high-speed access, allowing for all sorts of new and emerging media content to enter the living room.
Whether or not that will have an impact during this review of ownership rules remains to be seen, even though the FCC said it will study the growth of the Internet.
Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called the plans "thin gruel to those hoping for a meaty discussion of media ownership issues."
"The large media companies wanted, and today they get, a blank check to permit further media consolidation," Adelstein said.
The 2003 vote passed 3-2, with the Republican commissioners, led by then Chairman Michael Powell, voting in favor of less restrictive ownership rules. Republicans still are a majority on the five-member commission.
The FCC plans a 120-day period to seek public comment on the new rulemaking process. In a statement, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin called the review of media ownership rules "a topic of vital importance to our democracy." He added that the commission "should take into account the competitive realities of the media marketplace while also ensuring the promotion of the important goals of localism and diversity."
Paul Levinson, a professor and the communications department chairman at Fordham University, thinks there is great danger if a handful of broadcasters control the U.S. media.
"This is one situation where I think it is good for the government to get involved," he said. "When you're talking about monopolies of information, the media is central to our democracy and to our freedom of exchanging ideas."