Opposition Builds to FCC Media Blueprint


Well, nobody said change would be easy.

With the Federal Communications Commission days away from overhauling broadcast-ownership rules, the forces in favor of the status quo came on strong last week.

They urged FCC chairman Michael Powell to slam on the breaks and alleged the agency was about to bring irreversible damage to the media landscape.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate voiced strong opposition to an FCC staff blueprint that calls for relaxing rules that would allow the Big Four networks to bulk up, provide for more TV-station mergers in the same market, and substantially remove the ban on newspaper-TV station combinations within the same market.

Whether they were speaking for their media company supporters, or from the sudden realization that media power would be shifting back home, several lawmakers fumed that the FCC was embarking on a dangerous course that only lengthy antitrust suits would have a chance of unwinding.

"It's hard for me to make the case for more consolidation. In my judgment, the FCC should not be relaxing ownership rules at this point," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who remains irate that deregulation has allowed Clear Channel Communications to acquire about 1,200 radio stations and dominate small markets.

Wyden's view

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) complained that Powell's plan would, among other things, threaten the ability of newspapers to monitor financial misbehavior by their corporate parents.

"I believe this policy is going to serve as a glide path for the big media conglomerates to gobble up scores of small independent stations and our country is going to be the worse for it," Wyden said.

Dorgan and Wyden voiced their opposition at last Tuesday's media-ownership hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee. Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) rejected Wyden's request to call Powell to testify before the FCC's scheduled June 2 vote, claiming the panel should not be seen as "interfering unwarrantedly" in the actions of an independent agency.

Some Republicans also broke ranks with the GOP-controlled FCC.

"I think our media-ownership rules are working well and it makes good sense to review them. But basically I think we should leave them as they are," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Another small-state Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, called on the FCC to break with tradition and give the public a chance to see the proposed changes prior to a vote.

"We haven't been informed. We want a preview," Snowe said. "We are talking about a review process that potentially could open the door to [the] last barrier of restrictions to unfettered ownership in the industry."

Arguing for a new regulatory landscape was Viacom Inc. president and COO Mel Karmazin, whose 39 TV-station portfolio currently exceeds the FCC's 35% cap on national-audience reach by four percentage points. Powell is proposing to move the cap to 45%.

Karmazin said because network affiliates are better businesses than TV networks, network owners needed to own more stations in order to retain expensive sports programming, such as the NFL games, on free broadcasting.

"Someone should have an interest in preserving free, over-the-air broadcasting," Karmazin said. "If somebody doesn't have an interest, then content — sports content first and then other content—would find its way migrating onto cable where you can charge the consumer $2 for a cable channel."

But James F. Goodmon, president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting and the owner of the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, N.C., argued that the networks would dominate their affiliates if the 35% cap were raised, upsetting an already precarious balance.

'Balance' exists

"If Mr. Karmazin buys a station in Raleigh … I am not a CBS affiliate any more," Goodmon said. "We just need a balance here and my suggestion is that we have a pretty good one."

Powell came under pressure last week to postpone the vote by the FCC's two Democrats, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.

Backed by FCC Republicans Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin, Powell rejected the request, saying the agency had to meet congressional deadlines and obey court edicts mandating the adoption of new rules.

"When the judiciary reverses our rules, especially ones intended to promote core First Amendment values, it is incumbent on us to repair the shortcomings as quickly as possible," Powell said.

By tradition rather than rule, FCC members have typically been given the courtesy of delaying a vote for one month.

"This is no way to do business when critical issues affecting every American are at stake. I am disappointed that the chairman refuses to heed the calls of colleagues, as well as many members of Congress, to let the sun shine on his proposals before the commission decides on further media concentration," Copps said in response to Powell.

Even NRA weighs in

Opponents of Powell's broadcast-ownership policies included family organizations on the right and public-interest groups on the left. Few expected the National Rifle Association of America, long a strong backer of the Republican party, to take on Powell.

The NRA took its stand in a recent letter to its 4 million members, complaining that the FCC's plan would concentrate media power in the hands of "a half dozen anti-gun zealots in the top echelons of the media industry …"

NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre wrote that the FCC's new rules would make it harder for the gun lobby to buy advertising time designed to derail efforts to restrict the rights of gun owners.

The current FCC rules "have prevented gun-hating media giants like AOL Time Warner, Viacom/CBS, and Disney/ABC from silencing your NRA when we've needed to take our message directly to the American people in critical legislative and political battles," wrote LaPierre, who omitted Republican Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. from his menu of media villains.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and a fierce Powell critic, welcomed the NRA to his side.

"As far as a I am concerned, Karmazin [of CBS], Murdoch [of News Corp.], Wright [of NBC] and Eisner [of ABC] are legitimate targets one way or the other. Hooray for the NRA," Chester said.