The Federal Communications Commission kicks off the first of six planned public hearings Tuesday to discuss a number of broadcast ownership rules, including whether a single company should be able to own both a newspaper and a television station in the same market.
The hearing takes place in Los Angeles, a city where the Tribune Co. owns both the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV, Channel 5. Tribune is hoping the FCC will eliminate the ban, but just in case, has asked the agency for a waiver so it can renew its broadcast license and retain ownership of both properties. The station license expires Dec. 1.
The last time the agency revisited the ownership rules was in 2003, when it voted 3-2 to raise the national audience cap for television station owners, lessen restrictions on how many radio and television stations a company may own in the same market and allow for cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in some instances.
The decision sparked a popular revolt, congressional action and a federal appeals court decision that resulted in most of the rules being sent back to the agency for reconsideration.
The media ownership issue has not reached the same level interest as it did in 2003, when the FCC was besieged with complaints from media consolidation foes on both the right and the left. This time around, the marquee issue – the national broadcast audience cap — is off the table.
After the FCC voted in 2003 to expand the number of American households a single television broadcast company could reach from 35 percent to 45 percent, Congress intervened, setting the limit at 39 percent — the same percentage of viewers that the nation’s two largest television broadcasters, News Corp. and CBS Corp., reached at the time.
Tuesday’s meeting will consist of seven hours of comment and public participation and will be conducted in Los Angeles and El Segundo. Several witnesses have been invited, including members of the entertainment and television industries.
Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell was criticized for conducting only one public hearing three years ago before the commission voted on the media ownership rules. Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has taken a different approach, promising six meetings in all, with future sites yet to be announced.
In addition to the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, the FCC is also seeking comment on radio and television station ownership limits in a single market and whether one company should be permitted to own two of the top four networks.
Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation’s largest radio broadcaster with about 1,200 stations, is lobbying the FCC to increase the radio ownership limits in the largest markets, like Los Angeles.
The ownership rules exist because the broadcast airwaves are owned by the public and the law requires that the public interest be considered in how they are regulated. Too much control over the broadcast media in a market is deemed not in the public interest, though limits have been loosened over the years.
The FCC will grant a waiver of its rules on cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcasters when the property to be bought is in financial trouble. In New York City, for example, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. was granted a permanent waiver to purchase the New York Post, even though he owned a television station at the time.
In the Tribune case, the company bought the Los Angeles Times and the rest of the Times Mirror chain, betting that the FCC would change the cross-ownership rule before the station licenses would come up for renewal.
In Phoenix, Gannett Co. is in the same position. The No. 1 newspaper company owns the Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV, whose license is up for renewal. Gannett has asked for a permanent waiver.
Those in favor of liberalization of the ownership rules say that with cable television and the Internet, citizens have many new outlets to choose from and the rules, most of which are decades old, are no longer relevant. Opponents say there may be new outlets, but they are still owned by the same giant media conglomerates.
As for Tribune, the third-largest newspaper publisher may get smaller rather than larger. As the company’s stock price has dropped, it has been under increasing pressure from shareholders to sell off pieces of the company.