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Martin Expected To Launch Ownership Rewrite

Following Senate confirmation last week of a third Republican commissioner to the five-member commission, and in the wake of criticism of FCC inaction on media issues, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin plans to get the process started on an ownership regulation rewrite at the FCC's next--June 15--meeting, according to an FCC source.

He is already expected to call for a vote on granting broadcasters' multicast must-carry at that meeting if the commissioners haven't already voted the item on circulation, which is a vote by computer that does not require the commissioners to meet.

Martin has informed the other commissioners of his intention to take up the ownership issue June 15, though he is free to change the agenda right up until showtime.

Talk at the FCC was that fifth commissioner, Republican Robert McDowell, would be installed by the end of the week, perhaps as early as Thursday, and so could vote on multicasting on circulation. Martin also reserved the right to bring multicast must-carry up for a vote at the June meeting if it is not voted on circulation.
Broadcasters were buoyed by the news, while the cable industry pointed out that the FCC has twice before ruled against multicast must-carry and argued that private carriage negotiations are the way to go, with hundreds of such negotiations completed, including a system-wide carriage deal with noncommercial stations.

Traditionally, commissioners can ask that an item be put off for a vote until the following open meeting, so conceivably McDowell could ask that the must-carry vote be delayed a month.

The must-carry proceeding is said to consist of an order reversing the FCC's earlier decision denying multicast must-carry, plus a notice of proposed rulemaking on whether cable can degrade the DTV signal and whether cable or subscribers have to pay for the DTV set-top box to receive it.

Martin is likely to get the votes to get the ownership proceeding started, since it only marks the beginning a process that is likely to take a year or more. It would, in that sense, be a "first vote for progress" on a long-stalled issue for McDowell, one that would have little apparent downside.

The ownership item is said to consist of a proposed rulemaking rolling up several elements, including a proceeding begun in 2001 to define radio markets, a proceeding on newspaper/broadcast crossownership, the 2003 deregulatory rules and the FCC's quadrennial review (Congress requires it to review its rules every four years).

It will lay out the issues, call for comment and replies--45 days for comment, 15 for replies--and go from there, said the source. "That would be good news for me," said one lobbyist who has been waiting for an answer on whether his company can own newspapers and TV stations in the same market. "It's about time," said a station broker, who pointed out that it has been three years of ownership limbo and waivers.

Martin is on the record supporting a reading of must-carry law that requires cable to carry broadcasters' multicast DTV signals, not just a DTV replication of its primary signal as the FCC concluded under two of his predecessors. But Martin has been awaiting a third Republican commissioner to bring the issue before the commission for a vote.

That nomination had been held up for months until the surprise confirmation of McDowell last Friday. Martin is said to have given the other commissioners notice last Thursday night of plans to address both those issues at the June 15 meeting (he must give them three weeks notice).

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps had been openly frustrated last week by the lack of movement on media issues, and B&C had been pressing the chairman's office on the status of ownership and other items.

Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are likely to push for similar swift FCC action on two other ownership-related proceedings, a localism proceeding launched by Chairman Michael Powell in 2003 to quell some of the criticism of the derogatory ownership rules, and a DTV public interest obligation proceeding launched in 1999.

Those were not part of the omnibus ownership proceeding Martin advertised to the other commissioners, so it is unclear whether Copps or Martin will vote to launch the ownership proceeding, but if Martin has McDowell's vote, that won't matter. The vote to pass the 2003 rules was 3-2, with Copps and Adelstein dissenting.

Martin tried to get the ball rolling on media ownership last summer, but pulled the item from a September meeting agenda after he was unable to come to agreement with the Democratic commissioners on various issues, including reportedly how much to allocate to a new-ownership study and how many local hearings on media concentration to hold.

June will mark two years since a court remanded the FCC's deregulatory 2003 ownership rule rewrite for better justification.

During that long "meanwhile," some media companies have been holding off on deals and seeking waivers for others until the government decides just what they can own, and where.