Critics say FCC should delay ownership rules, not study the issue after the fact

Thursday, August 21st 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Critics of new broadcast ownership rules said the Federal Communications Commission should have studied how stations can best serve their local communities before allowing companies to buy more radio and television stations.

``It's a curious approach to pass a rule that's going to allow much more concentration in broadcasting and then decide the effect this will have on localism,'' Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said in an interview. ``It's a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.''

FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced Wednesday a series of initiatives aimed at ensuring broadcasters serve the communities in which they operate. Powell's decision followed sharp criticism of a June decision by the FCC to loosen media ownership.

Dorgan said he would ask the Senate early next month to overturn the new FCC rules. The House, over the objections of the Bush administration, voted overwhelmingly in July to block the FCC.

Dorgan said the agency should suspend the rules while studying their impact.

The new ownership rules, which the FCC approved on a party-line, 3-2 vote, would allow a single company to own TV stations reaching 45 percent of the nation's viewers and to own newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same city.

Powell, one of the three Republicans who backed the new rules, said the issue of serving local communities should be addressed separately from the ownership rules.

``Ownership rules are actually a very clumsy way to get at some of the things that consumers are actually concerned about,'' Powell said.

He said he would appoint a new task force to study the issue, hold public hearings and report back within a year. In addition, the commission will seek comments on rules designed to promote local programming, which includes making a newscast sound local despite being aired from another city. And Powell said the FCC would speed the licensing of noncommercial, low-power FM radio stations that feature local programming.

``We heard the voice of public concern loud and clear, that localism remains a core concern of our public,'' Powell said. ``And, thus, I think it's time the commission address it head on.''

Broadcasters applauded the announcement. ``We welcome any forum at any time that examines our role as local broadcasters,'' CBS spokesman Dana McClintock said.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., praised the initiatives as important first steps toward ``seeing localism and broadcasting preserved and, hopefully, even strengthened for future generations of Americans.''

But Tauzin questioned Powell's pledge to speed up licensing of low-power FM stations, which broadcast with 100 watts of power and measure their listening audience in blocks rather than regions.

Lawmakers in 2000 scaled back an FCC proposal to license as many as 1,000 low-power stations after broadcasters, including National Public Radio, complained that the new outlets could interfere with their signals.

``The FCC should move cautiously to make certain that low-power radio stations do not create interference problems for existing license holders,'' Tauzin said. ``Low-power radio stations provide an important community service, but the FCC will accomplish nothing if it solves one problem only to create another.''

Powell's announcement provided opponents with a new argument for why the FCC should delay the rules changes.

``By refusing to stay our rules, we guarantee a rash of mergers, acquisitions and swaps that cannot be undone because the genie will be out of the bottle long before this new task force reports,'' said Commissioner Michael Copps, one of two Democrats on the FCC.

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