Editorial: Time for a Vote

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski last week continued to take flak from minority groups, media activists and unions for a proposal to loosen some media-ownership regulations.

They called on him and the FCC commissioners to not vote for the proposal, which is currently circulating among the top FCC offices.

According to multiple sources, the chairman has proposed, and likely has the votes to pass, an order that would loosen the newspaper/TV station crossownership ban along the lines of an effort by his Republican predecessor, Kevin Martin; remove restrictions on newspaper/radio station cross-ownership; and lift the ban on TV station/radio cross-ownership, while also making some joint sales agreements subject to the local ownership caps.

The steps are not sufficient to appease broadcasters, but they are at least a move in the right direction—with the exception of making joint sales agreements attributable, but more on that later.

It has now been over a decade since broadcasters had any regulatory certainty about what they could and couldn’t own. That is when the FCC first tried to reform its rules. Since then they have been in and out of court more often than the cast of Law & Order. The FCC has been sued by both sides of the argument in a Goldilocks scenario: They are always offering too little for broadcasters and too much for media activists who, since they believe the industry is already too consolidated, see any more deregulation (regardless of how modest) as too much.

The current issue raising the ire of the advocates is their belief that the FCC has not sufficiently studied the impact of ownership changes on women and minorities, pointing to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ directive that the FCC study the issue.

But the current rule change review is actually two reviews in one—a response to the court and to Congress’ mandate of a quadrennial regulation review. The chairman’s order is about looking to finish that congressionally mandated review and provide some regulatory certainty by, primarily, loosening the newspaper/TV station cross-ownership rule, a step the Third Circuit didn’t have a problem with. Its problem was with how that move was once telegraphed by Kevin Martin in a newspaper editorial without sufficient notice or opportunity for public comment.

But the proposal was informed by input on diversity, the FCC pointed out last week, and the commission likely will tee up further diversity-related changes based on that input. The FCC can do two things at once, and it should. Who knows? Allowing more newspapers and broadcasters to join financial forces may even help preserve voices, though it would have more effect if the FCC allowed more mergers in smaller markets.

We urge the FCC commissioners to vote to approve the majority of the chairman’s draft proposal—though we would suggest breaking off the joint sales agreements portion into a further notice to allow more comment. The FCC’s inclination toward at least some deregulation does not need the counterbalance of new regulations on the joint agreements and sharing arrangements that are at least some relief from the local ownership caps the FCC continues to keep on the books.