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Powell, Copps Swap Shots on Dereg

A chorus of lawmakers, artists and activists clamoring to delay the FCC's June 2 vote on sweeping ownership rules is getting a deaf ear from agency Chairman Michael Powell.

Powell told reporters Thursday he "feels good" about chances for securing the commission majority necessary to bring wide-ranging changes to broadcast-ownership rules to a vote by his June 2 deadline. Discussions with three of four fellow commissioners are ongoing, including with Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, he said.

Powell confirmed that the 35% cap on TV-household reach, the most divisive issue among broadcasters, will be modified, not eliminated. He wouldn't address talk that the new limit will be 45%.

Although federal judges found current broadcast limits to be poorly reasoned, the new limits will be sufficiently justified to survive court scrutiny, he predicted.

Powell took a swipe at his most vocal critic on the commission, Democrat Michael Copps, who wants the vote delayed. Copps has repeatedly complained that the commissioners are in the dark about what changes will be recommended. Powell countered that Copps has not participated in briefings offered to all commissioners: "The clues are available for the taking."

He said he would grant Copps a delay only if there are substantive reasons, not "delay for its own sake."

Countered Copps: "This is serious business, not a game of Clue. With only 32 days left before the most important vote the FCC will take this year, there is no excuse for not having a proposal to review." He said he has accepted an offer for a briefing next week by Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree. "To my knowledge, I have never turned down a briefing on media-concentration rules."

Powell insisted that it's important to keep the proceeding on track because the market is entitled to some measure of stability before the next congressionally mandated biennial review begins in 2004. That means the inevitable court challenges to the new rules must get under way as soon as possible, he noted.

He called the seemingly never-ending biennial review process a "nightmare for the markets" because no regulatory framework will ever stabilize. Although a five-year review process might make more sense, he said, he hasn't decided to formally request that Congress change the timetable for the future.

As for the cacophony of voices urging delay—many critics of deregulation say the FCC is moving too fast to relax ownership limits—Powell said just as many are urging him to stay on track.

"There are an equal number, if not more, expressing the opposite view" from his critics, he said.

After the broadcast proceeding is completed, he will be eager to move on other media priorities, such as designing new cable-ownership limits, resolving affiliates' complaints about broadcast-network practices, setting rules for cable carriage of digital broadcast channels, and establishing a broadcast DTV copy-protection regime.

Last week, 285 academics asked Powell to reveal the so-called "diversity index," an economic model that will be used to establish new ownership rules. "We have grave doubts that any single measure can effectively analyze the complexities of the media marketplace in terms of its impact on journalism, citizen access to information, and competition," they wrote in a letter to Powell.

Powell countered that the index will be only one tool for setting new limits.

He defended plans to keep the index and other specifics of the rulemaking out of the public eye until the commissioners vote. Releasing the details early would be nearly as difficult to coordinate among the panel as the final vote itself, he said.