Washington -- The Federal Communications Commission
liberalized TV- and radio-station-ownership rules last week, but none of the changes would
allow cable operators to buy local TV stations.
Going back decades, the FCC refused to allow one company to
own more than one TV station in a market. But the commission decided that looser rules
were needed if broadcasters were going to remain competitive with cable and
direct-broadcast satellite operators, and perhaps even the Internet.
The agency granted limited relief, reflecting the fears of
chairman William Kennard that broad deregulation could lead to excessive ownership
concentration. "This is not the time to completely deregulate broadcast
ownership," Kennard said.
As a result, the FCC voted 4-1 to allow one company to own
two TV stations in a market, provided the market has eight independently owned stations,
commercial and noncommercial, remaining after the merger.
The commission said about 50 of the top 100 markets have
nine or more TV stations.
"This is really an aggressive relaxation of the
commission's duopoly rules," said Roy Stewart, chief of the FCC's
In another important change, the agency said it would no
longer prohibit companies from owning stations in adjacent markets. Under the old rules,
the FCC banned station ownership, for example, in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C., due
to overlapping signals.
FCC commissioner Susan Ness, alluding to jitters about
media concentration, noted that under the new rule, one company could own four TV stations
in Baltimore and Washington.
The rule change could trigger a merger waive in the months
ahead, especially in markets with nine or so TV stations. Stewart said the FCC would treat
license-transfer applications on a first-come, first-served basis.
Nevertheless, the commission will not allow the top four
stations in a market based on audience share to combine with one another. In small
markets, the FCC will allow common ownership of two stations if the station to be
purchased is financially ailing.
The agency also partially lifted its radio- and TV-station
cross-ownership ban, or its "one-to-a-market" rule.
Under the new rule, the FCC will allow the owner of one or
two TV stations to own up to six radio stations (AM or FM) where at least 20 independent
"voices" would remain in the market. The agency defined "voices" as
commercial and noncommercial TV and radio stations, general newspapers and cable
Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, who cast the only
dissenting vote, said he was outraged by the FCC's effort to enumerate who exactly
has a "voice" in a market for the purposes of crafting a mass-media-ownership
"How on God's earth do we, as a government, sit
up here and say we define what a voice is? People are born with voices,"
Furchtgott-Roth said moments after pounding his hand on the dais.
Since the early 1970s, the FCC has refused to allow common
ownership of a cable system and a TV station in the same market. The agency is considering
lifting or relaxing that ban in a future rulemaking.