FCC Chair Kevin Martin Makes Congress and the Public Do His Job
In relaxing "cross-ownership" rules, allowing a company to own a TV station and a newspaper in the nation's top 20 markets under certain conditions, he upset foes of media consolidation -- who fear the trend is just the tip of an iceberg eventually allowing cross ownership in every market. Passing the measure with votes from the commission's two Republican members, Martin also ticked off members of the newspaper industry, who said the change was too small to help substantially.
In passing a cap preventing any one cable company from controlling more than 30 percent of the nation's cable subscribers, he upset conservatives who oppose government stepping in to regulate a largely unregulated industry. Joining with the commission's two Democrats for this measure, Martin also upset executives at Comcast Communications, the only company close to the 30 percent mark with 27 percent of the nation's cable subscribers in their folds.
More importantly, in failing to build a public consensus for these changes -- especially the elimination of the cross-ownership ban -- Martin virtually guaranteed a nastly public fight over the rules, with little actual data presented to justify his moves.
Already, 25 senators have announced their opposition to the cross ownership rule change, public interest groups are planning to sue, and advocacy groups are gearing up public pressure to push legislators into overriding an expected presidential veto. All this for a rule change which currently benefits a handful of companies, including one of the nation's largest media conglomerates, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
Times reporter Christina Rexrode reports that there's likely little impact to the change in the Tampa- St. Petersburg market (currently the nation's 13th largest market): Media General's ownership to WFLA-Ch. 8 and the Tampa Tribune has always been allowed because it predates the 1975 banning such newspaper/TV "cross ownerships." (MG does have cross-ownership waivers for four markets, presumably under the top 20 threshhold, including Panama City).
While I suspect Times management wouldn't mind the having the regulatory ability to purchase a TV station, it's hard to imagine such a scenario given our current financial challenges.
As I noted in an earlier post, Martin has cast this move as an effort to save the newspaper industry; the FCC's press release on the cross ownership decision notes "permitting cross ownership can preserve the viability of newspapers by allowing them to share their operational costs across multiple platforms."
But Tribune Co., one of the best known media companies with cross ownership arrangements in major markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago, is struggling financially. Other companies, such as Belo co. have announced plans to separate their TV and newspaper companies, earning praise and support from Wall Street investors. Even longtime newspaper analyst John Morton told the Los Angeles Times Tuesday "isuspect you're not going to see a big rush of newspaper companies trying to buy TV stations."
So Martin disregarded significant public and congressional sentiment to pass a rule relaxation that even the industry which benefits from it likely won't use much. (though the L.A. Times reports the FCC also granted 42 cross ownership waivers, which this bold rule relaxation obscures) And rather than help the nation sort through he mess, he creates a situation sure to spark lawsuits, retaliatory legislation and protests.
Makes you wonder why they bothered holding those public hearings across the country, including here in Tampa, earlier this year. Doesn't make much sense to take public comment if you're not going to heed it.