By: Todd Shields
(Mediaweek) The Federal Communications Commission today began a sweeping rulemaking process that could weaken or eliminate major limitations on broadcast ownership.
Regulations at stake include those that limit national and local television ownership, restrict ownership of broadcast stations by local newspapers, and prevent joint ownership of any of the major four television networks.
“This is the most comprehensive undertaking of media ownership regulations, I believe, in the commission’s history,” said FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
Powell, a Republican, long has been skeptical about whether many FCC regulations are necessary. Today he said the agency was approaching the rulemaking with an open mind.
Commissioner Michael Copps, the sole Democrat on the panel that also includes three Republicans, urged caution in revamping rules aimed at preserving diversity, competition and localism in broadcasting.
The FCC has been under pressure from federal courts, which say some of the commission’s rules lack legal underpinning.
Media companies and some lawmakers say outmoded FCC rules are restricting companies in an era of media abundance marked by satellite, cable and Internet transmission of information and programming. Others say programming abundance masks a lack of diverse viewpoints, and that rules are still needed to protect the public’s interest in hearing competing viewpoints.
FCC officials offered no firm timeline for a decision on the six rules. FCC staffers expect to forward a recommendation to the politically appointed commissioners by next spring.
The FCC is separately considering whether to retain or modify regulations limiting the reach of cable television companies.
The agency’s decisions are certain to attract keen interest on Capitol Hill, where questions of media concentration have received increased attention this year in a Congress narrowly divided along party lines.
The rules opened for examination Thursday currently involve the following: prohibit most daily newspapers from owning nearby broadcast stations; limit a single television network to owning stations that reach 35 percent of the national audience; prevent Fox, ABC, CBS or NBC from buying one another; place restrictions on one company owning two television stations in the same market; limit local radio ownership in individual markets; and restrict common ownership of radio and television stations in a market.