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Surprise! Media Ownership Vote Is Delayed

It looks like the FCC will not vote on media ownership rules changes until January at the earliest, after chairman Julius Genachowski decided to allow for more time to weigh in on the FCC’s recently released study on the state of media ownership, specifically ownership by women and minorities.

Plenty of people might have understandably been shocked to see the vote happen in 2012. But after five years of challenges, court remands and FCC reviews, it looked only a few weeks ago as if the FCC would finally take action to provide at least some regulatory relief. That, however, was before a major pushback from some traditional friends of Democratic FCC chairmen.

Genachowski had said earlier this year that he wanted to see the commission’s quadrennial review of its ownership rules voted by year’s end. He circulated an item that would have loosened the newspaper/broadcast crossownership ban in the top 20 markets, though with a presumption against mergers among a “major paper” and one of the top four stations. It would also have lifted limits on newspaper/radio and radio/TV cross-ownership.

But after the item was circulated, Genachowski started to hear reactions from minority groups, labor unions and Hill Democrats, all traditional allies of a Democratic FCC chairman.

Their issues were twofold: that any further deregulation was too much, and that the FCC had failed to complete planned ownership diversity studies as directed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals when it remanded similar rule changes by then-FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, back to the FCC for better justification.

They were also troubled that Genachowski circulated the ownership item for a vote rather than schedule it for a public meeting. Also at issue: the idea that loosening the rules could give Rupert Murdoch an early Christmas present of a path toward purchasing TheLos Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune.

While the chairman’s office continued to argue early last week that the FCC had taken diversity issues into account in its rule changes, and that its proposal would not necessarily make it easier for top stations to buy major newspapers, the pressure continued to mount with letters from top Democratic senators calling for the commission to hold off on a vote and allow for more input and vetting of the impact of the rules on diversity. One senator even threatened a congressional resolution of disapproval, though that would be unlikely to pass a Republican-controlled House.

Enter Mignon Clyburn, the first African-American woman on the FCC, who asked for and got an extra 30 days for public comment on the commission’s biennial 323 ownership report, which was released essentially in association with the media ownership item. That report found little overall improvement in media ownership by women and minorities. And that effectively puts the media ownership vote on hold as well, since the FCC used information from that report to inform its media ownership item.

This extra 30 days of comment means there will be lawyers working over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays—the deadlines of Dec. 26 and Jan. 4—unless the FCC extends this latest comment period. But it also means Genachowski can provide critics a little more opportunity to weigh in before the ownership item is voted on, and perhaps deflect some of the criticism that the item was being rushed under cover of a vote on circulation.

Even if the FCC does eventually vote to loosen some of the rules, a number of FCC sources say they are concerned that it will, again, not pass muster with the appeals court if it is challenged. And media advocacy group Free Press has promised to lodge that challenge if the item passes as currently constituted.

That challenge likely would mean years more of uncertainty for broadcasters— though they aren’t too pleased with the item either, since it does not lift the newspaper cross-ownership ban entirely, does not loosen local market ownership caps and counts some joint sales agreements toward those ownership caps.

In short, at presstime, broadcasters’ status vis-à-vis what stations and station/newspaper combinations they will ultimately be able to own remains in limbo. As usual.

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