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A 3-in-1 Column

The last redoubt of the beleaguered columnist is the holiday column. You know, the Thanksgiving thanks column, the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa et al wish-list column, the New Year's resolution column.

But what if I combine all those into a single 750-word gem that tells you everything you need to know about what's going on in D.C. That would be clever. Right?

So, taking the holidays in order, let's get started by giving thanks that the media-ownership proceeding is finally over. (Well, almost over. Congress is coming back next week for the finishing touches.)

This proceeding poisoned the broadcasting industry in 2003. It pitted broadcaster against broadcaster, crippled the National Association of Broadcasters and empowered long-time enemies of broadcasting like never before. Those enemies will be coming back in 2004 to demand new "public-interest" obligations on broadcasters—and they will be heard.

Beyond the industry itself, the proceeding made a mockery of the FCC processes and embarrassed FCC Chairman Powell. The agency labored for months, promising a new set of rules based on careful analyses of the media marketplace. In the end, it produced numbers that reflected political compromises and then was trumped by Congress. Same old, same old.

The bottom line: After much ado, Congress and the White House worked out a deal that would set the station-ownership cap at 39% of TV households, just enough to accommodate Viacom and Fox. They will be able to keep all of their stations.

The FCC could have granted those two a permanent waiver in one afternoon. But that's not how Washington works. Millions and millions of taxpayer dollars must be spent before Washington arrives at the obvious.

There is no victory here for the foes of media consolidation. Inevitably, Fox and Viacom will buy more TV stations and exceed the 39% cap under temporary FCC waivers. And then they will work like dogs to make the waivers permanent. They will succeed. History says so.

The new ownership rules may also allow Tribune and a few of the other publisher/broadcasters to operate a few more local newspaper/station combos. But we must await a decision from a federal appeals court in Philadelphia before we know for sure.

This ugly proceeding also failed to provide much relief where it is needed most: in small markets. The rules continue to ban the ownership of two stations in small markets where the efficiencies of dual ownership might save stations or at least newscasts.

Good riddance to ownership.

How about that ecumenical holiday wish list? I wish for a speedy resolution of the must-carry proceeding; it's coming to the fore as the ownership rules issue fades.

Broadcasters' transition to digital has reopened this fight, and it's shaping up to be a real doozy between two old foes, broadcasting and cable.

One part of me looks forward to it: It will write another chapter in a saga that stretches back 40 years.

But a larger part of me wishes it would go away: It's a saga that stretches back 40 years. Nobody is clamoring for the movie rights.

Broadcasters were cruising until late October, hoping for FCC approval of what has come to be called multicast must carry—a rule that would require cable operators to carry everything broadcasters cram into their digital channels, whether that's HDTV or several channels of standard-definition programming or both.

But FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein woke up to the fact that they may be able to extort all kinds of programming commitments from broadcasters in exchange for their must-carry votes.

ABC and NBC are trying to get must-carry back on track by promising a mountain of swell multicasting services with heavy emphasis on local services, as in localism. Did you hear that, FCC? Localism.

NCTA President Robert Sachs fired back last week, suggesting that the local multicasting talk may be smoke and mirrors and that none of the proposed services has any proved financial viability.

Meanwhile, NAB weighed in with its wish list of digital must-carry during the transition. NAB says it's not dual-must carry, but it kinds of smells like dual must-carry. Broadcasters could demand that cable operators carry their digital signal and then see if the operators are brave enough to drop their analog signal.

Don't just wish. Pray for a speedy resolution.

Now for the New Year's resolution: No more columns with lame holiday themes. Not that I won't be tempted. We have MLK Day coming up in January, and I think I could work with that. I have a dream...