Court Won't Lift TV/Paper Ban

Federal judges in Philadelphia dealt another blow to media conglomerates Friday.

The U.S. appeals court there rejected Tribune Co.’s request to lift the FCC’s ban on cross-ownerships of a TV station and a daily newspaper in the same town.

Things didn’t go well for big radio owners either. Even though most of the FCC's June 2003 revamp of ownership rules remains stayed, the court allowed the commission to go forward with the one alteration that tightened ownership restrictions somewhat. The FCC can now make radio station owners divest stations in some small markets.

Friday’s rulings covered separate requests by Tribune and the FCC to lift a stay on portions of the June 2003 changes. A third request by Viacom to allow more local TV/radio combos is pending.

In June, the court struck down greatly relaxed FCC limits on local cross-ownership and other changes to broadcast ownership rules the commission approved last summer.

Because of Friday’s ruling, the FCC’s longstanding ban on TV/newspaper combos remains intact. Consequently, Tribune and other big media companies will have to break up some combos or win FCC waivers to keep them going.

For instance Richmond, Va.-based Media General is fighting to retain both WBTW Florence, S.C., and The Morning News. Tribune will have to defend combos in New York, Hartford, Conn., and L.A. when station licenses there go up for renewal beginning 2006.

Despite the FCC’s crossownership ban, the companies were able to form the combos by exploiting an FCC loophole that allows them to be operated temporarily until a station’s license goes up for renewal. Combos formed before the ban was imposed in the 1970s are permanently grandfathered.

The court offered little explanation for its refusal to lift the newspaper crossownership ban. When it struck down the ownership changes three months ago, the court said the FCC was permitted to relax the restrictions but had not justified the new limits it approved last summer.

Because the ruling found some relaxation was permitted, Tribune argued that the court should at least let combos in the biggest U.S. markets continue.