NAB, MMTC Weigh In on Diversity

The National Association of Broadcasters and the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council agreed that the Federal Communications Commission needs to take steps to promote diversity in media ownership but disagreed on whether loosening ownership rules would help or hurt that effort.

Among the things they agreed on, which were outlined to the FCC in comments on media-ownership rules (the deadline for comment was Oct. 1), was revival of the tax-certificate policy that gave media companies a tax break if they sold to minorities and women,

They also agreed that the ownership rules should leave some room for grandfathered groups of stations that exceed numerical caps to be sold "as is" to minorities or women -- such a waiver usually cannot be extended to a new buyer.

And they agreed to a modification of that rule that would allow the sale to a nonminority or female buyer if that buyer agreed to come into compliance with the cap by selling extra stations to minorities or women.

Actually the designation is an SDB, or socially and economically disadvantaged business, which is a race- and gender-neutral designation to avoid limitations on race-based classifications.

But where the two groups differed was on the underlying media-ownership rules, which the FCC is reviewing under orders from Congress and the courts.

The MMTC, a nonprofit that advocates for minority media companies, argued that the FCC should adopt a raft of diversity initiatives, voluntary and mandatory, to address a lack of access to media properties that it calls a "cancer" on the broadcasting industry. It also wants the commission to gauge those initiatives' success before even attempting to make any major changes in media ownership.

The NAB emphasized voluntary initiatives including job fairs and educational efforts, as well as some FCC moves to allow larger investments in minority station purchases and greater access to capital.

The NAB also put in a pitch for deregulation, saying that the FCC should avoid "unwarranted and unproven assumptions that modernizing the local broadcast-ownership rules will result in fewer opportunities for women and minorities," and that diversity initiatives would be "moot" if not combined with rule changes that allowed broadcasters to compete in an "ever-expanding digital-media marketplace."

The MMTC applauded voluntary efforts but said the commission should recognize that those efforts won't cure most of the problems, saying, "The charitable record of the industry is substantial," but it "pales in comparison to the massive breadth and depth of the civil-rights problem that demands a cure."

It also warned not to adopt deregulatory rules "whose impact would wipe out any gains the minority-ownership package could deliver."

In separate comments, anti-consolidation activist Free Press seconded the ownership rule concerns: ""Our research found that any policy changes that increase media concentration will unambiguously cause a further decline in female and minority ownership," said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner.

The FCC sought comments on ownership diversity as part of its years-long review of media-ownership rules. It tried to loosen many of those rules in 2003, but a court sent the rule rewrite back to the commission for better justification. It is also required to review its rules every four years by Congress under instructions to get rid of any it no longer thinks are necessary.

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.