Media-Ownership Rewrite Likely to Drag Into 2005

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By: Todd Shields

(Mediaweek) Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell says he’s not sure how to respond to a federal appeals court’s rebuff of media-ownership rules. While Powell considers his course, others, including some in Congress, say the agency should seek greater public input before recasting the regulations yet again.

“We just don’t know yet,” Powell, a Republican, said last week when asked about the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2-to-1 decision on June 24. The court said the FCC needs to supply better reasons for its relaxation of important rules, including those that limit ownership of multiple TV stations within markets and cross-ownership of broadcast stations and nearby daily newspapers. In the meantime, the previous, stricter rules remain in effect. Powell said officials still were digesting the ruling. “It’s a long opinion and a long dissent,” Powell said. “A lot of it’s technical.”

But not too technical to point a way forward, say critics of the FCC’s approach. They include, most prominently, commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat considered a top candidate to become at least an interim FCC chairman if his party wins the November election. “It should be clear to my colleagues, and I hope it is, that we need to reverse course,” Copps said June 30.

Copps called for a series of public hearings around the country — an idea met with disdain by officials close to Powell, who say the court wants factual analysis that is not likely to emerge from large meetings. Others, including members of Congress, say public participation would bring a legitimacy that the secretive procedure has lacked thus far. “The FCC’s new media-consolidation proceedings should include full periods of public comment,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees FCC appropriations, said on the House floor last week.

Analysts said the rewrite will drag well into 2005, assuming that the Bush administration does not seek Supreme Court review. Andrew Jay Schwartzman, the lead attorney for plaintiffs who said the FCC relaxed the rules too much, said rectifying some of the deficiencies identified by the court could lead to a very different result: cross-ownership regs that don’t allow for any more acquisitions by broadcasters in their own markets.

Others were less categorical. “They can still draw some lines,” said David Kaut, a Washington telecommunications analyst for Legg Mason. “They may have to adjust where they draw the lines.”

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