Free Press, Others Ask FCC To Deny Some Gannett/Belo Transfers

Add Free Press, NABET-CWA, The Newspaper Guild-CWA, National Hispanic Media Coalition, Common Cause, and Office of Communication, Inc., of the United Church of Christ to those who don't want the FCC to approve Gannett's plan to spin off some stations as part of its $2.2 billion purchase of Belo's TV stations.

Wednesday (July 24) was the deadline for filing petitions opposing the deal.

The groups cited stations in five markets--Phoenix; Louisville, Ky.; Tucson; Portland, Ore.; and St. Louis--that would violate the FCC's newspaper/broadcast crossownership and local ownership cap rules if Gannett were not turning around and selling them to operating companies headed by former Belo group chief Jack Sander, and Ben Tucker, former head of the Fisher station group.

The petitioners call those third-party "shell" companies that mask the "true intent" of the deal, which they say is to allow Gannett "to simultaneously influence and control multiple media outlet in the same local market in a way that is contrary to the public interest and otherwise prohibited by the Commission's rules....Even if they do not outright violate the rules, such sharing arrangements are not in the public interest because they reduce the diversity of viewpoints and reduce competition in the provision of local news and the sale of advertising," they said.

They want the FCC to deny those transfers, or at least designate them for hearing.

Gannett has made no secret of the fact that it is treating the stations--including the Sander and Tucker spin-offs--as a "Super Group" and plans to include all of their financials in Gannett's consolidated earnings statements.

The petitioners say that the deal is the first one they know of that uses sharing arrangements to try and circumvent the newspaper-broadcast crossownership rule, so the full Commission--rather than the Media Bureah--should have to rule on it.

"The FCC shouldn't let Gannett break the rules," said Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron. "Media consolidation results in fewer journalists in the newsroom and fewer opinions on the airwaves," "Concentrating media outlets in the hands of just a few companies benefits only the companies themselves. The deal would clearly violate the Commission's cross-ownership bans, with covert consolidation contracts working to combine newsrooms. We need the FCC to block this transaction to protect and promote local journalism."

The American Cable Association, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable have also petitioned the FCC to deny the St. Louis, Phoenix and Tucson spin-offs to Sander and Tucker, which they say will allow Gannett to unfairly coordinate--they say "collude"--on retransmission consent negotiations and subvert the intent of local ownership caps..

"This transaction is entirely consistent with all FCC rules, policies and precedent," Gannett said in a statement, "and will bring substantial benefits to the public."

John Eggerton

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.