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FCC Commissioners OK Ownership Proposals, But Not Without Reservations

 The FCC voted Thursday to propose a number of changes to its media ownership rules, ask whether joint TV stations services agreements should count toward ownership caps, and to seek better ways to promote media ownership diversity, but that vote did not come without some respectful dissention in the rank, including the only not vote, which came from a Democrat.

Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell called the FCC's approach overly cautious and a form of 'Regulatory Sclerosis' and concurred, rather than approve, the parts he was not happy with, and Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps dissented from loosening the newspaper-broadcast crossownership portion, as he did the last time the FCC took similar action, in 2007 under then-chairman Kevin Martin. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who supported the item in its entirety, focused on the diversity initiatives portion.

McDowell supported the diversity inquiry and scrapping the radio-TV ownership ban, but 'concurred" in other parts due to tentative conclusions that he says are an overly cautious approach to new media competition that has revolutionized the market.

McDowell was disappointed that the FCC has tentatively concluded that dual network, local TV and local radio ownership rules should remain intact. "Maintaining decades-old industrial policy in this age of competition, mobility and new media is not in the public interest, and it certainly is not what Congress intended when it directed the Commission to repeal or modify unnecessary regulation," he said in his statement accompanying the vote.

He was also not happy with the FCC's decision to loosen, not lift the newspaper-broadcast crossownership ban, as it did in 2007.
"while the Commission does propose an anemic relaxation of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule for the largest markets and seeks comment on eliminating restrictions on newspaper/radio combinations," he said, "the proposals do not go nearly far enough." He added that the way the item was teed up, it could wind up tightening the rules in some situations. "The proposal to apply ownership combination restrictions to daily newspapers and television stations within the same Nielsen Designated Market Area may prohibit ownership combinations that are currently permitted," he said.

McDowell called "anachronistic at best" the FCC's conclusion that "broadcasters may distribute their content through radio, television, the Internet, mobile devices and other unforeseen portals, but must be prohibited by law from printing the same content on the medium of newsprint."

McDowell voted to approve seeking comment on diversity proposals, which he said is necessary, and eliminating the radio-television cross-ownership rule, but only concurred in the rest, which is neither a yes or no.

He said he has "serious problems" with the FCC's inquiry into making shared services agreements subject to the local ownership caps the commission is proposing to retain. "These arrangements are used to reduce the costs of news production and any action taken to hinder such relationships may have unintended consequences," he said, "such as reducing the quality and quantity of local news and exacerbating the failure of more newspapers. We must be wary of taking actions in the name of promoting journalism, especially if they could have the opposite effect.

Copps, saying that it was likely his last major vote--he is retiring Dec. 30--said it should come as no surprise that he dissented from the newspaper-broadcast crossownership portion. "In the vast majority of cases, I do not believe that newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership advances the public interest," he said. "It means fewer voices in the community, less localism in the industry, and steep transactional costs that all too often lead to down-sized or shuttered newsrooms and fired journalists."

Copps said if he had his druthers the FCC would have put out a flashing orange caution light in the NPRM, the follow up with a report and order that" would turn on a red light to many consolidation transactions, while still allowing for exceptions in the few cases that would warrant them."

In contrast to McDowell, Copps was happy to be teeing up shared services agreements. "It is critical that the FCC look at these arrangements from all sides and make critical decisions on how our rules should be modified to incorporate these Shared Services Agreements," he said, adding: "I am pleased we are heading in that direction," though, of course, if it is to go there it will have to do so without him.

"This NPRM acknowledges that the Commission needs more data. It admits that the factual information that the Commission currently has is incomplete if developing policies to promote greater female and minority ownership is still a priority," she said. "I commend the Chairman for insisting that ours is a data-driven agency, and am encouraged by the commitment to support the research necessary to achieve, in an expeditious fashion, a comprehensive picture of the current state of female and minority ownership."