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FCC's Bundling Strategy Unraveled

Harry Jessell's Aug. 25 column, "Walking the Walk," which attributed the furor over all of the Federal Communications Commission's new media-ownership rules to the White House's appointment of Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. While I agree with much of what the column said, I believe it missed what were the crucial mistakes: (1) the commission's prejudgment even before the record was developed that the cap should be abolished or gutted and (2) its insistence, against the advice of many inside and outside the commission, on bundling all of the ownership rules in one proceeding.

It should have been clear that the national rule—the 35% ownership cap—was distinctly different from the other ownership rules, all local. For example, the federal courts had already made clear that the local and national rules had little to do with each other and the commission's much touted diversity index had nothing to do with the national cap. Even the commission's own order makes clear that the cornerstone principle of localism supports retention of a national cap and
relaxation of the local ownership rules. Also, because the "heat," the controversy, was largely generated by the national cap, the commission would have been wise to examine that issue separately.

Instead, the networks encouraged the commission to believe the bundling strategy would splinter the defenders of the cap by holding hostage relaxation of the local rules that is needed in order to preserve and strengthen the public's local service in smaller markets. And some of the commissioners talked about the desirability of deregulating all the rules to a similar degree as if that were a legitimate public-policy goal.

As we now know, both the strategy and the reasoning backfired badly. This was demonstrated by the recent House 400-21 vote in favor of rolling the cap back to 35% but not changing the commission's decision on any of the local ownership rules and by an overwhelming vote to the same effect by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Sept. 4.

The public, with Congress as its proxy, has understood the issues better than the commission. As a result, Congress is making distinctions between the local and national rules based on principle. Because the commission did not, those supporting the decision have been surprised by the public outcry and the congressional backlash.

Commissioners Copps and Adelstein deserve credit for successfully mobilizing the opposition to the new rules. But their efforts would not have created the grassroots and congressional reaction against necessary relaxation of the local rules but for the commission's premature commitment to eviscerating the 35% cap and using the bundling strategy to achieve that goal.

Frank is president of Post-Newsweek Stations and chairman of the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance.