- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

Federal regulators voted yesterday to relax some of the restrictions that have kept the nation’s largest media companies from growing larger, a decision that may put a few giant companies in control of what most people see, read and hear.

The 3-2 vote along party lines by the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission will permit one company to own newspapers and television stations in the same city, and allow a single broadcaster to own as many as three TV stations in one market.

In the largest cities, for example, one company will be able to own as many as three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable TV system, cable TV networks and a daily newspaper.

Critics say relaxing the restrictions will reduce local news and a diversity of viewpoints, and have vowed to fight the FCC’s actions in court and Congress. Proponents say the changes are needed because the existing rules are outdated in the era of the Internet and cable and satellite television.

“Keeping the rules exactly as they are, as some stridently suggest, was not a viable option. Without today’s surgery, the rules would assuredly meet a swift death,” said FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, who joined the other Republicans on the panel, Kathleen Q. Abernathy and Kevin J. Martin, in voting to revise the rules.

Without changes, the rules created between 1941 and 1975 would have been thrown out by the courts, Mr. Powell said.

The FCC’s other two members, Democrats Jonathan S. Adelstein and Michael J. Copps, voted against loosening the restrictions.

Mr. Copps called the FCC’s overhaul its most sweeping since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, when it approved changes that paved the way for the creation of conglomerates such as Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest owner of radio stations, with more than 1,200 outlets.

“This exercise ought to terrify us as we consider visiting upon television and newspapers what we have inflicted upon radio. The ‘Clear Channelization’ of the rest of American media will harm our country,” Mr. Copps said.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, called the FCC’s decision “dumb and dangerous” in a speech on the Senate floor. He said it will create a system with many television stations but just “one ventriloquist” controlling them.

Mr. Dorgan is part of a bipartisan group of senators who vowed to try to overturn the relaxed regulations through a “resolution of disapproval,” which is essentially a way for Congress to veto executive agency regulations through new legislation; or by attaching an amendment to a spending bill.

But key House Republicans said such measures are unlikely to pass in the House, and they defended the FCC’s action as simply carrying out what Congress and the courts have asked the FCC to do.

The rules will take effect when they are published in the Federal Register.

Media companies that say the agency did not go far enough in relaxing the rules could seek legal action in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, although that is considered unlikely, industry observers say.

More likely are lawsuits from the consumer groups who opposed the FCC’s actions. Representatives from those organizations said yesterday they want to study the agency’s decision further.

“On the surface, there are some glaring inconsistencies that would seem ripe for correction in the courts,” said Chris Murray, legislative counsel for Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

For example, the FCC’s changes will allow one company to own local TV stations that reach as much as 45 percent of the national audience, a figure previously capped at 35 percent.

UHF stations, those above channel 13, will be counted as half a station because they generally reach fewer viewers, FCC officials said.

The changes also lift a 28-year ban that prevented companies from owning newspapers and television stations in the same city. Under the change, a single company can own a TV station and a newspaper in any city with four or more stations. In larger cities with more than eight stations, any combination of newspapers, television and radio stations will be allowed.

In these cases, UHF stations are counted as full stations.

The FCC’s different interpretations of UHF stations “seem to be crying out for a legal challenge,” Mr. Murray said.

And under the changes, a broadcaster will be allowed to own as many as three TV stations in one city where there are 18 stations before the merger, affecting large cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Broadcasters will be allowed to own two or more stations in midsize cities.

Previously, so-called duopolies were limited to the nation’s largest cities, including Washington, where News Corp. owns the Fox and UPN affiliates.

The FCC’s vote preserves a rule that allows a broadcaster to own as many as eight radio stations in a city with 45 or more stations, and own as few as five stations in a city with fewer than 14 stations.

However, the FCC is expected to redraw the boundaries that define a radio market, making them smaller.

The FCC’s vote also preserves a ban that prevents any of the four major broadcast TV networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — from merging.

A broad coalition of both conservative and liberal organizations — such as the National Rifle Association and the National Organization for Women — have joined forces in recent weeks to criticize the FCC plan.

Protesters and television news crews gathered outside the FCC’s office in Southwest Washington, thrusting into the spotlight a federal agency that rarely grabs headlines.

As Mr. Powell and the other FCC commissioners cast their votes, two members of the women’s activist group Code Pink stood up in the gallery, repeatedly singing, “Mass deregulation of the mass communication is the end of democracy.” Security guards led the women outside the FCC hearing room.

The FCC has received more than 500,000 e-mails and postcards opposing the changes, and temporarily shut down its voice-mail and e-mail systems last week because of the deluge of comments, according to published reports.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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