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Editorial: Fighting Chance

Nothing in a recent court decision should prevent the FCC from taking the steps it should to give broadcasters a fighting chance in the high-stakes poker game for the digital future, currently being played with a deck that often appears stacked against free, over-the-air broadcasting.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has pointed to the over-the-air audience as dwindling, while beating the drum for broadband. But given the results of the FCC’s own Future of Media study, which found that broadcast news remains a key link to communities, broadcasters should be given a chance to compete on a more level playing field with those vaunted new technologies.

Not to burst the balloons of all those folks claiming that a federal appeals court is encouraging the FCC to re-regulate broadcasting—about the last thing the industry needs as it fights for its life—but the Third Circuit did not rule on whether the FCC should lift the ban on newspaper-broadcast crossownership.

The court, in restoring the ban, ruled not on the content of the rule change, but the way it was conveyed to the public in an Op-Ed only four weeks before a vote. We can quibble over whether that was sufficient notice or not, since it was the product of 18 months of work that included numerous hearings. The FCC does not always spell out exactly what it’s going to do before it does it.

But whether or not the way the decision was publicized was procedurally defective has no bearing on whether it was the right thing to do. Fix that problem, then go all in and scrap the ban.

A trio of FCC chairmen—Democratic and Republican—have already advocated getting rid of the ban, while the FCC’s Future of Media report advised the commission to look at the potential upsides, as well as downsides, of allowing for more consolidation.

“In terms of public policy, many rules intended to advance public interest goals are ineffective—and out of sync with the information needs of communities and the nature of modern local media markets,” said the Future of Media report. “In some cases, policies do not achieve their intended goals. In other cases, policies that might have once made sense have not kept up with changes in media markets.”

One of the report’s goals was to inform the FCC’s current media ownership review. The above guidance, which could have been targeted directly to the decades-old ban, should be one of those guiding principles.

Basically, what the Third Circuit ruled was that the FCC had the authority to modify or not modify its media ownership rules. No quibble with that here.

The FCC needs to free broadcasters to innovate by loosening outdated regs. Oh, and while the commission is at it, leave them enough spectrum so that ownership relief will not be a moot point.