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FCC Court Case Delays and Complicates Media Ownership Review

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. (Photo: Greg Elin / Flickr)

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) long-overdue quadrennial review of media ownership rules is quickly approaching its most recent deadline as the agency waits on the result of an ongoing court case with several media reform groups.

Every four years, the FCC evaluates rules that regulate ownership of broadcast outlets. The FCC commissioned nine economic studies and held six public workshops in 2009 and 2010 to get input on its regulations, including how to address financial needs and economic changes in the media, industry diversity and the effects of new media on broadcast stations – but a debate on cross-ownership has become the standout issue.

The FCC did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2007, the commission loosened the restrictions on a 35-year-old ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, giving new allowance for a single company to buy and operate both a major newspaper and a radio or TV station in the same market – a move that was immediately challenged by public interest advocates, including the Prometheus Radio Project and the Media Alliance. With the Third Circuit Court involved, Commissioner Robert McDowell said in April, the FCC would have trouble moving forward with its review.

“As far back as 2009 I was sounding the warning that we needed to be expeditious in addressing these rules,” McDowell told the National Journal. “There is certainly the potential for this regulation and litigation cycle to continue for years.”

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The Prometheus Radio Project, which has fought against alleviating cross-ownership restrictions since 2003, was joined by a number of other consumer advocacy groups in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in February to present their challenge against the FCC's new regulations, arguing that loopholes in the commission's rules could allow newspapers to own TV stations of any size. Media reform group Free Press also testified that media consolidation could prevent an increase in minority-owned stations and stifle the creation of local news programs.

“Under [former chairman] Kevin Martin, the FCC attempted to eviscerate the longstanding rules regarding ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market,” Media Access Project Senior Vice President and Policy Director Andrew Schwartzman, who was representing the Prometheus Radio Project, said at the time. “We welcome the opportunity to call upon the Court to reverse that decision.”

“The current FCC had an opportunity to tighten rules adopted in 2007,” said Free Press policy counsel Corie Wright. “[But] instead the current chairman has chosen to defend them … We hope the court will recognize these deficiencies and instruct the FCC to correct its mistakes.”

McDowell, who supported the FCC's decision to deregulate cross-ownership, asked the court to make a quick decision on the case because of the country's “grave economic situation,” which saw the closing of several major regional newspapers during the recession. While he admitted that the FCC did not need to wait for the court to make a decision on the cross-ownership case before continuing with the quadrennial review, McDowell said it would be “awkward” for the agency to do so.

Compounding the debate over the issue, the FCC gave media companies running both newspapers and TV stations their third deadline to update requests for the waiver of cross-ownership rules; with the July 5 deadline rapidly approaching, the court case pending and the FCC hesitant to move forward without a decision from the judges, it is unclear when the review, currently almost two years in the making, will be completed.


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