Regulators to take a broad look at rules governing media ownership

Monday, June 17th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal regulators will combine reviews of a half-dozen rules governing the ownership of newspapers and television and radio stations in an attempt to make the rules consistent and able to survive legal challenges.

``All of these rules are really kissing cousins in some sense and you can't think about one of them without also at least contemplating what is happening in another,'' said Kenneth Ferree, chief of the Federal Communications Commission's media bureau.

Ferree said Monday the study and any potential changes to the rules are expected to be completed by spring 2003. The final report will ``deal with all of the media ownership rules and policies related to use of the broadcast spectrum.''

There will be a separate report on cable television rules, he said.

The decision to combine the reviews comes after courts have called several federal media ownership rules into question, leading to speculation that a wave of big media industry mergers will result.

Consumer groups have warned that a consolidation trend will lead to a handful of companies controlling all the information people receive as well as how they receive it.

In two separate rulings this year, an appeals court told the FCC to justify rules limiting media ownership. Those rules involved restrictions on the national reach of companies that own multiple television stations and on companies that want to own two television stations in the same market.

The FCC also has been separately reviewing the restriction that prohibits one company from owning a broadcast station and newspaper in the same market, as well as a rule that limits radio station ownership.

Ferree said that in addition to these four regulations, two other rules _ one concerning the number of television and radio stations in a market a company can own and another preventing any of the four major television networks from merging with each other _ will also be included in the overall review this fall.

The FCC has been concerned that ``too many of our ownership rules and regulations seem to be founded on hunch and intuition more than on a firm, solid factual record,'' Ferree said.

In April, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia criticized the government's restrictions on companies that want to own two television stations in the same market.

For decades such double station ownership was banned outright. The FCC last year relaxed the rule somewhat to say that a company could own two TV stations in one market as long as one of them is not among the top four and at least eight broadcast competitors remained after the deal.

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. sued over those changes. The appeals court agreed that the eight-competitor requirement, and the FCC's reasoning behind not counting cable, direct broadcast satellite, radio or newspapers as some of those independent voices, is ``arbitrary and capricious.''

In February, the court sent back a rule that prohibits any entity from controlling television stations that, together, can reach more than 35 percent of U.S. households. The court also threw out long-standing rules that forbid one company from owning cable TV systems and a broadcast TV station in the same market.