By: Joe Strupp
Congress urged to open media markets
NAA president and others ask lawmakers to scrap ban on cross ownership of TV and newspapers
Some of the nation’s most powerful newspaper and broadcast executives urged Congress last week to remove the 24-year ban on cross ownership of broadcast and newspaper outlets, calling the ban everything from “unnecessary” to “irrational.”
“The newspaper cross-ownership ban has always been onerous, and we have long opposed it,” said John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, who testified during a Sept. 15 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection. “It is outdated and, in fact, counterproductive in the contemporary information marketplace.”
Sturm was one of seven media industry heavyweights who testified against the ban and in favor of three bills currently pending before Congress to eliminate the restriction.
Those bills include H.R. 598, sponsored by Rep. Michael G. Oxley, R-Ohio, which would simply eliminate the ban, and proposed changes to H.R. 942, introduced by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., which would remove the ban and raise the nationwide audience cap for owners from 35% to 45%.
A third proposal, S. 1577, introduced in the Senate last week by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also would repeal the ban, but allow the Federal Communications Commission (fcc) to reinstate it if it can prove a need in the future. All three proposals remain in their respective Commerce committees for review and have yet to be scheduled for full Congressional votes.
The fcc ban on cross ownership has been in effect since 1975, but exempts cross ownerships that were in place prior to its creation. Since it went into existence, media companies seeking to own both broadcast and newspaper outlets in the same market have been barred from doing so, except for those who have won exemptions.
Among those testifying last week against the ban were: Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp.; Jack Fuller, president of the Tribune Publishing Co.; James Hedlund, president of the Association of Local Television Stations; and Michael Katz, a senior consultant at Charles River Associates.
Each had varied reasons for opposing the restriction, but most centered on the idea that it was a restraint of trade.
“In a world in which a cable operator can control hundreds of channels, the common ownership of a tv station and newspaper represent not only little danger to diversity,” Hedlund testified, “but virtually guarantees better service to the public.”
Sturm, whose nonprofit group represents more than 2,000 publications, said the ban has already hurt the viability of newspapers. He said many that have folded might have survived if tv or radio station owners in the same market were allowed to purchase them.
Sturm cited the now-defunct Washington Star, whose parent company had also owned the local wmal tv station for years, but chose to sell both properties just as the cross-ownership ban went into effect. Although a buyer agreed to purchase both in an effort to keep the Star going through revenues from wmal, the fcc disallowed the move, forcing the Star to be sold, and eventually folded.
“It is impossible to fathom how the Star’s expedited demise contributed to viewpoint diversity in the Washington market or otherwise served the public interest,” Sturm said.
Several witnesses at the hearing also pointed to the fcc’s recent decision to lift the ban on ownership of multiple tv and radio stations in the same market, saying that change is no different than lifting the newspaper/broadcast ban.
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