Although few broadcast industry issues in recent memory have been as controversial, FCC chairman Michael Powell appears to have the votes on June 2 to raise the station ownership cap to 45 percent and to allow newspapers to own local broadcast stations.
Behind-the-scenes lobbying has been fierce. Most national consumer advocacy organizations are resisting further media consolidation. Many Congressional lawmakers are nervous about the outcome of rule changes. Most terrestrial television stations and their chief lobby organization, the NAB, want to keep the current 35 percent ownership cap in place as a way to limit the power of the broadcast networks, now all owned by media conglomerates.
Yet, the Republicans are determined to change the rules to allow greater concentration of media ownership. The White House has given a thumbs-up to the deregulatory effort. Last month, Commerce Secretary Don Evans officially urged Powell to stay the course. “On behalf of the Bush administration, I urge the commission to adhere to the schedule you have outlined,” Evans wrote in a letter to Powell.
The new ownership cap most discussed is 45 percent. Television Week reported that FCC sources say that’s the magic number the Republican commissioners want.
It’s also the number independent station group Belo Corporation recently endorsed. On April 17, Belo’s CEO and chairman, Robert Decherd, let it be known that he expects such a change to allow his stations to preempt network programming. He also wants the FCC to allow broadcasters to buy second TV stations in their home markets, and to prevent local newspapers from merging with TV stations. Sources reported, however, that Belo — a loner on the issue among most station groups — has no firm deal for its proposed quid pro quo.
In fact, such back room shenanigans worry some broadcasters. CEO Jim Goodman of Capitol Broadcasting wrote a letter last month urging the FCC to avoid wheeling and dealing over such an important issue. “This debate should not take place with deal-making and concessions between a few major media companies and a government agency with appointed, not elected, officials,” he said.
A change in the newspaper ownership rule would be no surprise since all of the Republican FCC members, who collectively hold a single vote majority, are on record supporting it.