Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Heated Hearing As FCC Approves New Ownership Rules

Radio Ink - Dec. 18, 2007

WASHINGTON -- December 18, 2007: "We generously ask big media to sit on Santa's knee, tell us what it wants for Christmas, and then push through whatever of those wishes are politically and practically feasible," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps this morning at the FCC's public meeting as the commission prepared to vote on FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's proposal to partially relax the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban.

"No test to see if anyone's been naughty or nice," Copps continued, "just a big shiny present for the favored few who already own an FCC license and a lump of coal for the rest of us. Happy holidays."

Copps said Congress and the American public have "done just about everything .. but storm southwest DC" to protest Martin's proposal, adding, "We say we're guided by public comment, yet the majority's decision is overwhelmingly opposed by the public."

The new rules passed Tuesday morning allow newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership in the top 20 markets under certain conditions, with waivers possible in smaller markets, though smaller-market cross-ownership would be presumed not to be in the public interest.

But the waiver provisions were revised overnight to reverse that presumption in smaller markets if a station is "failed" or "failing" under the FCC's definitions and the in-market buyer is the only "reasonably available candidate" or when the proposed transaction results in a new source of local news in a market -- specifically, at least seven hours of new local news on a station that didn't previously air local news.

Copps and fellow Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein aren't happy with the revision, with Copps saying he's not yet clear on the particulars because the changes were made so late but adding, "This much is clear: The new version keeps the old loopholes and includes two new ones."

Adelstein called the vote a "monumental mistake" and said, "That we're moving forward when the voices that matter are asking us to refrain defies the imagination. The FCC has never attempted such a brazen act of defiance against Congress. Like the Titanic, we're steaming ahead at full steam despite repeated warnings of danger. This effort may yet sink. We should have slowed down rather than putting everything at risk."

Copps earlier said the revised proposal circulated Monday night "granted all sorts of permanent new waivers," and Adelstein said there were 42 waivers "adopted in the dead of night on the eve of a vote." Thirty-six of the waivers involve already-grandfathered newspaper-broadcast combinations, he said, and Commissioner Robert McDowell in his opening statement noted that the rest are for companies operating under temporary waivers.

Like Copps, Adelstein is unhappy with the revised waiver conditions for markets below the top 20, calling them a "Chinese menu" of conditions that will ultimately undermine localism, competition, and diversity.

McDowell defended the process that Copps and Adelstein had said was too rushed, saying the FCC has proceeded "like a runaway glacier" -- as, meanwhile, "the private sector has been busy working around the obstacles created by the outdated regulations of yore."

About the permanent waivers, McDowell said, "We will not require divestiture of existing combinations that were grandfathered in conjunction with the 1975 rule, or that were granted permanent waivers of the rule," adding that the FCC "should not reverse course here as we modernize our rule."

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