The FCC Media Bureau has granted Tribune a permanent waiver
of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule in Chicago and temporary
waivers in four other markets: New York, Los Angeles, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale and
Hartford-New Haven, though Tribune had sought permanent waivers.
The temporary waivers are for one year, after which the
company can apply for new waivers.
The move, along with the FCC's expected denial of a separate
petition to review the permanent waiver in Chicago, clears the way for the
transfer of the station licenses and the emergence of the company from
The commission also granted Tribune a failing station waiver
in Hartford, a satellite waiver in Indianapolis, and pointed specifically to
easing the company out of bankruptcy in the order granting the waivers. In
fact, it said it granted the temporary waivers "to facilitate an orderly
disposition of these assets from bankruptcy."
The FCC was essentially extending the permanent and
temporary waivers it granted in 2007 to allow the sale of the company and
its station licenses to the Zell Group.
The waivers allow for the continued common ownership of:
KTLA(TV) Los Angeles and the LA Times;
WPIX(TV) New York and Newsday;
WSFL(TV) Miami and the Fort Lauderdale
South Florida Sun-Sentinel;
WGN-TV and WGN(AM) Chicago and The
Chicago Tribune; and
WTIC-TV, Hartford, Connecticut; WCCT-TV Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Hartford Courant.
In denying making the temporary waivers permanent, the FCC
said there was a "heavy burden for a party requesting a permanent
waiver," and Tribune's arguments did not clear that hurdle. Among the
FCC's reasons: Tribune knew the combos were noncompliant when it acquired the
properties and it did not demonstrate changed circumstances that should compel
"a different result."
But the FCC also pointed out that Tribune can reapply for
permanent waivers "if" the FCC adopts new ownership rules, which it
is expected to do soon. The chairman has proposed loosening the newspaper/broadcast
cross-ownership rules in the top 20 TV markets, which would mean that the
combos in New York, LA and Miami-Fort Lauderdale, all
in the top 20, would be presumptively in the public interest, while
Hartford at market No. 30 could have a tougher time.
As B&C/Multichannel News reported, the bureau
said it would deal with the petitions to deny the Chicago permanent waiver in a
separate item. The chairman has circulated an item effectively denying those
petitions, according to sources familiar with the item. The petitioners, which
included the Teamsters and public activist groups, had argued the waiver
decision should be held in abeyance until their reconsideration petition was
resolved, but the FCC disagreed. "Tribune must accept the risk that the
Commission or court could reverse the Commission's grant of the applications."
The court, perhaps, but the chairman almost certainly has
the votes on his proposal to deny those petitions, even if they had to come
from the two Republicans on the panel.
"I am pleased that the long-standing Tribune matter is
moving forward," said commissioner Robert McDowell. "The Media Bureau
is correct to refresh Tribune's waivers of the obsolete newspaper/broadcast
cross ownership ban."
McDowell put in a plug for scrapping the ban entirely and,
in the interim, for granting temporary, not permanent waivers.
"The outdated ban itself should be eliminated because
the record indicates that it is likely undermining the public interest on
several levels," he said in a statement. "Furthermore, the ban is
more than likely an unconstitutional limitation on speech by restricting
speakers' access only to those platforms favored by the government. If this
encroachment on First Amendment rights ever made sense in 1975 when it was
codified, it no longer does in the face of today's highly competitive, dynamic
and fragmented media market place. Accordingly, no rules should exist to
which waivers need to be granted. In that spirit, while such rules still reside
on our books, the Commission should grant waivers permanently and not in
miniscule one-year segments that require speakers to crawl back to the government
for permission to speak."
Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai was happy with the
decision, though he said agreed the bureau should have given Tribune permanent
waivers in all markets given the state of the newspapers and their willingness
to continue to publish them. He also signaled he thought the commission would
likely adopt the quadrennial media ownership rule review order circulated by
the chairman Nov. 14. That order would loosen the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership
rules to allow for combos in the top 20 markets, or at least make them
presumptively in the public interest and put the onus on critics to prove they
"While my preference would have been for the Media
Bureau to grant the Tribune Company permanent waivers from the newspaper/broadcast
cross-ownership rule in the New York, Los Angeles, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, and
Hartford-New Haven markets," he said in a statement, "I am
nonetheless pleased with today's Order, he said. "It facilitates the
company's exit from bankruptcy, grants Tribune a permanent waiver in the
Chicago market, and allows the company to maintain its newspaper/broadcast
combinations in the four other markets so that they may be examined under the
new rule we are likely to adopt later this year. Given the financial conditions
confronting the newspaper industry, we should be applauding companies that
continue to operate daily newspapers rather than saddling them with artificial
and outdated regulatory burdens."
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.