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FCC Chairman Expresses Consolidation Concerns

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday that he recognized that the media industry had become more concentrated since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, that he was concerned about it, and that he was keeping an open mind during the commission's latest attempt to rewrite its ownership rules.

Big media consolidation critic Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) called Martin part of the "troika" that voted for a deregulatory ownership rewrite of rules that allowed one company to own 8 radio stations, 3 TV's, the newspaper and cable company in a single market. "Are you still comfortable with that?" he asked.

Martin said it "gives me pause," but added that he wasn't sure he was that comfortable with the prospect the first time around..

"But you voted for it," pointed out Dorgan. Martin said that was because he thought that, in the largest markets, that was what the record indicated, but that didn't mean he wasn't concerned with the impact of consolidation.

But Martin also it said that it depends on how you measure it. He said that, in general, there had been more consolidation, but also said there was an increase in the availability of news and information via the Web and cable.

Martin said the commission would keep "an open mind on what we should end up doing." The FCC is currently reviewing those 2003 rules under orders of the court, which found them insufficiently justified.

Several Senators hit Martin on the issue of localism, which Martin called one of the key goals of regulation. California Democrat Barbara Boxer was particularly tough on him.

The FCC still has a proceeding on localism that was opening in 2003 by FCC Chairman Michael Powell in an effort to separate those issues from what he called the structural changes he was making in the 2003 deregulatory rule rewrite under a court-ordered review of the rules.

Boxer asked why, three years later, there have been no results from that proceeding, a criticism that has been leveled often by commission Democrat Michael Copps.

Martin pointed out that he inherited the problem, since the FCC was to have reported back on the results of that inquiry by the end of last year. He promised to hold the final hearing on localsim and said he has gotten the staff to work reviewing earlier results in preparation for drafting a report.

Boxer was not appeased, producing what appeared to be an FCC report she said was from 2004 that indicated that local stations produced more news than non-locally owned media.

Who suppressed this report? she asked. Martin pointed out that the report was dated before he became chairman, that he had not read it, but that he would make sure that he did.