FCC Moves Toward Ownership Reform

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By: David Ho, Associated Press Writer

(AP) Rules that limit ownership of newspapers and radio and television stations are just months away from a broad overhaul that could pave the way for more media mergers and alter the landscape for news and entertainment programming.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is studying whether decades-old ownership restrictions are suitable for a media marketplace that has been transformed by satellite broadcasts, cable television, and the Internet.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell says the agency review probably will be completed in May.

The FCC planned to hold a hearing Thursday in Richmond, Va., to get public input as one of the final steps in its review.

“At stake in this vote is how TV, radio, newspapers, and the Internet will look in the next generation and beyond,” commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, told a House telecommunications subcommittee Wednesday. Copps has sought more public hearings on the media ownership review and plans to hold his own next month in Seattle and Durham, N.C.

“We are on the verge of dramatically altering our nation’s media landscape without the kind of national dialogue and debate these issues so clearly merit,” Copps said.

Powell said the Richmond hearing would be enough because the agency already had received thousands of public comments, most of them sent by e-mail. “You can develop record until you’re blue in the face but at some point people expect you to take a position,” he said.

A 1996 telecommunications law required the FCC to periodically review ownership rules in light of industry changes. It is widely believed that Powell and two other Republicans on the commission want to loosen regulations.

Media companies, including the owners of the four major television networks, have asked the FCC to abolish the ownership rules, saying the regulations restrict their ability to grow and stay competitive.

Groups representing consumers, broadcasters, entertainers, and other media workers argue that the restrictions should remain to prevent a handful of giant companies from controlling what people watch, hear, and read.

Viacom Inc., owner of CBS, MTV, and UPN, was one of several companies that questioned a rule prohibiting any company from controlling television stations that, together, can reach more than 35% of U.S. households. An appeals court said last year that the rule was too sweeping and sent the regulation back to the FCC.

Last year, courts also rejected restrictions on companies that want to own two television stations in the same market.

Other rules under review concern the number of television and radio stations a company may own in one market; a ban on mergers between the major TV networks — NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox; limits on radio station ownership; and a restriction preventing a company from owning a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same market.

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