NAB Urges FCC to Ease Media Ownership Rules; Consumer Groups Warn

Ira Teinowitz reports:

Broadcasters are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to loosen media ownership rules to sustain the viability of high-cost news operations. Meanwhile consumer and civil rights groups are warning against any easing of ownership rules in a final round of comments submitted before the FCC issues any new rules.

With the possibility that proposed new rules could be issued by the agency as soon as Nov. 13 and voted on by the commission in December under a timetable proposed by Chairman Kevin J. Martin, all sides made final bids to woo the agency in comments on 10 FCC studies that looked at some ownership issues..

"The commission's studies generally demonstrate the lack of harm and indeed the benefits that would be gained from allowing local broadcasters to adopt more economically viable ownership structures," the National Association of Broadcasters said in its comments filed Monday.

It suggested the FCC's own studies showed the current ban on newspapers and television stations buying each other in a market, aka cross-ownership, is unwarranted and should be repealed.

The NAB also argued that the growing number of sources for information, opinion and entertainment means other rules should be eased, pointing specifically to one allowing a media company to own two TV stations only in larger markets. The NAB suggested smaller markets also should be included.

"The real threat today to locally oriented services including costly services such as local news is not the joint ownership of broadcast stations, but the stations' continuing challenge to maintain their economic viability in the face of multichannel and other competitors that are not constrained by restrictions on local ownership structure," the NAB said. "Only viable broadcast stations sustained by adequate advertising revenue can serve the public interest effectively and provide a significant local presence."

The NAB suggested the FCC should "reform the television duopoly rule to allow more freely the formation of duopolies in markets of all sizes."

Broadcast unions including the Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA, the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild of America, meanwhile, called on the FCC to impose some new limits to ensure the survival of independent content producers.

"A simple analysis of the declining number of independent producers demonstrated that the viability of independent producers in today's vertically integrated broadcast/production environment is not just difficult. It is virtually impossible," the unions said in a joint filing.

"The discriminatory practices of dominant broadcast networks have acted as an anti-competitive barrier to entry. The dominant networks constructed a Hobson's choice for any would-be independent producer whereby the networks take ownership or don't take at all. The resulting contractions in the number of content providers and consolidation of even more power in the hands of the already dominant broadcast networks constitutes evisceration of the commission's goal of viewpoint diversity," the guilds said.

The big consumer group comments were still to be filed. Meanwhile, women's groups including the National Organization for Women Foundation, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the National Congress of Black Women argued that the FCC needs to do more to gather good data on ownership of stations by women and to set goals for such ownership.