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Belo and the 45% Solution

In a speech last week to a Media Institute audience that included FCC Commissioners Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy, National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts reiterated his association's opposition to raising the 35% cap on a TV-station group owner's national audience reach, saying the NAB has never been for wholesale deregulation.

But while Fritts was asserting that the 35% cap has helped preserve the network/affiliate relationship and benefited localism and diversity, Belo Broadcasting appeared to be breaking rank. In a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, Belo Chairman Robert Decherd said it was time to "coalesce around a rational revision of these long outdated [media ownership rules]" and suggested it could "coalesce" around raising the national cap to as much as 45%.

Our guess is that Belo could be the first deployment in a reformation of the local broadcasting ranks around the compromise figure. For one thing, Belo carries a bit more weight than your average group. It holds one of only seven designated seats on the NAB TV board and is a member of the National Affiliated Stations Alliance, which was formed for the express purpose of checking network power, including the networks' attempt to raise—or raze—the cap.

In addition, only two of the Big Four nets—NBC and ABC—would get major opportunities to bulk up from a 45% compromise. Fox and CBS are already over the limit, under temporary FCC waivers.

We have seen no compelling evidence for the need for any FCC station cap. Yet, uncertain about what might happen if the cap were suddenly and completely eliminated, we can accept an incremental approach, and 45% sounds like a reasonable starting point. As Chairman Powell has pointed out, there will be numerous opportunities to tweak whatever ownership rules remain, since one tardy biennial review has hardly ended—June 2, he promises—when another looms. Of course, finding a number that broadcasters and a Republican FCC majority can live with is one thing. It's another to justify it to the courts, where "sounds like a reasonable starting point" doesn't cut it, particularly when the FCC's own Video Competition report documents the proliferation of media voices.

Let 'Em In

Trial judges should be given the discretion to allow TV and still cameras in their courtrooms. Mississippi last week agreed to allow cameras into a number of its trial courts, with some restrictions and at the discretion of the judge. Meanwhile, the great state of New York and eight others continue to bar such coverage entirely. Now, unless we've missed something here, a judge's job is to weigh the facts and make reasoned decisions. What does it say about those nine states' opinion of their judges that they won't allow them to weigh the costs and benefits of cameras? All 50 states now allow some broadcast coverage of their appeals courts. The same should apply to trial courts.