Powell: Relax Media-Ownership Rules


Comparing proponents of stringent media-ownership restrictions to Chicken
Little, Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell said Thursday
that the current ownership rules are unnecessary and are likely to be struck
down by the courts.

Powell, speaking at a Media Institute luncheon in downtown Washington, D.C.,
said the FCC should loosen rules that restrict mergers and cross-ownership in
the broadcast- and cable-television industries.

With the explosion of electronic media in the past several years, he added,
"It simply has become more difficult to simply assert that an ownership
restriction is essential to promoting diverse viewpoints."

In order to adhere to the 1996 Telecommunications Act -- which required the
FCC to prove the necessity of regulations -- Powell said the agency must present
more detailed evidence justifying the public-interest benefits of ownership

"Any hope we have of preserving the use of ownership rules as a way of
promoting diversity goals will rest on the FCC's ability to offer significantly
more compelling explanations of the rules it employs. If we fail, the rules will
be gone in a year," he said, noting the willingness of courts to strike down FCC

As part of its biennial review, the FCC is preparing to overhaul its
broadcast- and cable-TV ownership rules. Powell said he expects the updated
rules to be finalized in early June.

Powell, a Republican, asserted that broadcast TV might not remain
commercially viable unless the FCC relaxes restrictions on newspaper companies
owning TV stations in a single market area.

He said the future of free broadcast TV "is not guaranteed" because of
competitive challenges from cable and digital subscriber line, which enjoy more
revenue sources, channel capacity and potential for interactivity and

"Change may be imperative if we want to preserve free, over-the-air
television," Powell added. "Changes in our rules may give television the final
chance it needs and deserves to respond and survive."

Powell said backers of strict media-ownership restrictions are engaging in
"histrionics, intuition and the cries of Chicken Little" and are making
"alarmist political attacks designed just to prevent change."

It wasn't clear whether Powell's comments were targeted specifically at
Democratic commissioners such as Michael Copps who have defended the ownership

Copps said Thursday that the rules ensure that broadcast- and cable-TV
outlets have diverse owners and serve diverse constituencies.

"Free speech can be undermined not only by the government, but it can be
undermined by private corporations if a private corporation has single-handed
control over the radio, the TV, the cable, the newspaper and the access to the
Internet, too," Copps said. "That means we have to look at what that means in
terms of diversity."

Copps -- who has been touring the country bemoaning the evils of media
consolidation -- said the FCC is looking at ways to use a "diversity index" to
govern broadcast-licensing procedures.

The commission, he added, should "look at the big picture and see how
responsive [broadcast- and cable-TV stations] have been to constituencies
[instead of] the almost-semi-automatic postcard license-renewal procedure we've

The commission is separately evaluating the broadcast- and cable-TV-ownership
restrictions, but Powell and Copps said many of the same factors apply to their
consideration of the rules for both media.

States News Service