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Editorial: Humbug Upon Humbug

The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to restore a variation of former chair Kevin Martin's broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership "lite" proposal. That edict was enough to anger a lot of Democrats who argued—way back in 2008— that any more deregulation, even a simple loosening of the ban, was unacceptable, and deserved the unusual step of trying to block the rule change legislatively.

Of course, it also angered broadcasters, who said the proposal was too little and perhaps too late, given the competition they faced…and again, that was three years ago, when Facebook only had 100 million users (it’s now north of 800 million), and Twitter was still more associated with what birds did than a media revolution.

Some of the Democrats who tried to block the rules back in '08 seem to have short-term memory issues—they were putting the heat on Republicans who, earlier this year, attempted the same kind of maneuver when they tried to block the network neutrality rules with a similar resolution.

Fast-forward to last week, when some of the same House members who backed the ’08 petition were trying to get the FCC to back off that loosening of the rules once again. While those House members said they were simply suggesting the FCC should leave the rules in place, they invoked their 2008 resolution of disapproval and said they would be equally concerned if the FCC went through with current chairman Julius Genachowski’s plans.

The chairman should politely ignore that strong-arm in a velvet sleeve. However, he and the FCC should also do much more than the current proposal suggests.

As proposed, the item being circulated scraps the TV-radio cross-ownership rule, which is fine; nobody on the broadcast side was really clamoring for that anyway. But rather than loosen the cross-ownership ban, the FCC needs to lift it, as past chairmen have suggested they would have done had they not been afraid of Congress.

Even more troubling for broadcasters would be to leave the duopoly rules in place.

Separately last week, broadcasters sought Supreme Court review of the FCC’s ownership regs in their challenge to the Third Circuit, which left most of the regs in place but punted the rules back to the FCC yet again. This exhausting game of tag has been going on for almost a decade. It is that remand, in combination with its congressionally mandated duty to review the rules every four years, that is behind the item circulated for a vote by Genachowski several weeks ago.

Fortunately, even if the FCC’s Democratic majority votes to approve the rulemaking, there will still have to be a lengthy comment period, since one of the Third Circuit’s problems with the FCC’s last effort was a lack of notice and comment period.

Broadcasters will be busy trying to figure out how the FCC is going to remake their spectrum allocations to make way for wireless, but they will have to battle on media ownership regs so that those who stay in the business can—well, stay in the business.

Regarding the FCC’s tepid response: If that shadow remains unaltered by the future, it may ensure that either broadcasters won’t get the help they need to remain competitive or any new rules will be taken to court again. That would leave broadcasters needing to remain under last century’s regs, while their competition goes over the top, over satellite and over cable to reach audiences without any similar constraints.