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Martin Proposes Limited Lifting of Newspaper-Station Cross-Ownership Ban

One day after The New York Times interviewed Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin about his plans for changing ownership rules, Martin took to the paper's op-ed page to make a case for confining those changes to the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule and nothing more.

Martin had been testing the waters for a limited lifting of the ban, but he spelled out the proposed conditions in his Nov. 13 column. He had planned to outline his proposal on that date as part of a timetable to vote on ownership-rule changes by Dec. 18.

Rather than simply dropping the ban on the ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market, which the FCC proposed in 2003, Martin outlined a proposal in which newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership would be presumed to be allowable in only the top 20 markets, and even in those markets, a newspaper could not be co-owned with one of the top-four-rated stations, similar to current restrictions on owning two TV stations in a market.

Crossownerships would not be disallowed in the smaller markets, but there would be a presumption that they were not in the public interest and there would be a high bar to meet for a waiver in those cases.

There would also be a "voices" test, similar for TV-station duopolies, in which at least eight independently owned major media voices, which would include major newspapers, would have to remain following the purchase to allow for cross-ownership.

To grant a waiver in markets smaller than the top 20, the FCC would, on a case by case basis, consider: 1) the level of concentration, 2) a showing that the new entity will increase local news, 3) a commitment that both the newspaper and broadcast outlet will exercise independent news judgment and 4) if the newspaper is in financial distress, whether the combined ownership will result in an investment in newsroom operations.

And Martin pledged to confine the rule changes to just that. "Beyond giving newspapers in large markets the chance to buy one local TV or radio station," he wrote, "no other ownership rule would be altered. Other companies would not be allowed to own any more radio or television stations, either in a single market or nationally, than they already do."

He said later on a conference call that this vote would essentially close the ownership proceeding.

In a release from the commission outlining the chairman's proposals, he goes beyond simply saying he would not make any of the other changes proposed in the 2003 ownership rule rewrite he voted for. The release says the chairman "believes [emphasis ours] that any further relaxation in the radio or television market should not be allowed."

The chairman invited public comment on his proposals, with those comments due Dec. 11. That would keep to the timetable of a vote on the change by Dec. 18.

Look for one powerful commenter, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) not to be appeased.

Martin said he was proposing helping out newspapers and stations even though "I confess that in my public role, I feel that the press is not on my side." He has received criticism for the FCC's crackdown on indecency content, for one.

At the same time Martin is making that "minor" deregulatory step for broadcasters, he is seeking support at the commission for more cable regulations, saying in an interview with the Times last week that cable had sufficient market power to trigger FCC action to encourage diversity and competition.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which has been pushing for regulatory relief for years, put ina plug for broader relief in reacting to the news "NAB's position is that we support modest reform of media ownership rules to allow free local broadcasting to compete against mulichannel pay platform providers," the organization said in a statement. "That would include eliminating the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule and duopoly relief allowing one company to own two TV stations in smaller and medium size markets."

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.