Now, NAB Pushes Triopolies

Small- and mid-market broadcasters' stand a good chance of getting their wish from Washington—new government rules making it easier to own two TV stations in a market—so they aren't stopping there.

The National Association of Broadcasters is pushing the FCC for the first time to allow one company to own three stations in a market, as long as the outlets aren't top performers. NAB says the FCC should consider allowing "triopolies" on a case-by-case basis in markets not meeting the trade group's suggested criteria for permitting more duopolies.

"Our major focus is the crying, indeed critical, need for duopoly relief," said NAB regulatory attorney Jack Goodman. "Our test would supply a great deal of relief, but it doesn't take in every situation where help would be appropriate."

Duopolies are currently permitted only in markets big enough to allow eight separately owned stations to remain or when one of the stations is failing. Neither paired station may be among the top four in local ratings. NAB is urging the FCC to permit duopolies when a station with a viewing share of 10 or more is paired with one generating less than a 10 share. The trade groups also want the FCC to make it easier for stations to qualify as "failing" so that eligible stations don't need to be in danger of going dark.

Since 1996, NAB has argued that stations in small and midsize markets are in most need of duopolies because the pool of ad revenue in those areas is too small to support separately owned stations. Duopolies and, by extension, triopolies are opposed by public-interest groups. They say paired stations generally do not add newscasts or bring other promised programming benefits and do reduce the number of independent media voices in a community.

But, Goodman counters, when stations have shaky finances, FCC commissioners "should not close their eyes" to triple combos if that will secure long-term viability. The NAB suggests that triopolies be permitted in big markets for stations at the bottom of the ratings and struggling financially.

Last month at a C S First Boston media conference in New York, Viacom President Mel Karmazin, who led the charge for duopolies, was pushing for the next step too. "How dare they say you can only have two stations in a market?" Karmazin asked

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said he wasn't surprised by the triopoly pitch, but he wouldn't reveal his reaction.

Already Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting is trying out a triopoly of sorts in Nashville, Tenn. The company owns Fox affiliate WZTV(TV) and UPN affiliate WUXP(TV) and has been providing sales, administrative and technical services to WNAB-TV there. Sinclair has urged the FCC to do away with all local-media-ownership rules.