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Time to Own Up

Broadcasters could finally be getting a break on the media ownership front after years of seeking some kind of regulatory certainty about what they can own and where.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals last June left its stay on the loosened newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules in place, awaiting more input from the FCC, advocacy groups and the industry on what it should do next. Challenges to the rules change came from both sides, with consolidation foes saying any more deregulation was too much, and broadcasters arguing that it was unjustifiably too little.

The FCC, which has a petition to review the rules change before it as well, said it wasn't doing anything about the rules until it completed its 2010 quadrennial media ownership rule review. The agency also pointed out that there were new commissioners onboard who did not necessarily share the views of the commission that voted for the rule change.

The Third Circuit has ordered the FCC and other parties to weigh in by Jan. 7 on why the court should not lift the stay and let broadcasters at least team up with newspapers in major markets—and also have that possibility, on the showing of a number of public-interest benefits, in smaller markets as well. It also wants to know why the ban should remain in effect at all. It shouldn't, and the court should, at the least, decide to lift the stay.

With the quadrennial review expected to take many months, perhaps longer if previous reviews are any indication, that could leave broadcasters in media ownership limbo virtually in perpetuity. And while Washington fiddles, Rome is at least smoldering.

The new year will, we hope, bring a rising economic tide, but broadcasters face a systemic as well as a cyclical threat from new media. Allowing them to combine operations, or meld with other media, may be insufficient to stem that tide, but denying them that flexibility would preserve a regulatory model outstripped by the delivery technologies the new FCC touts at every turn.

The FCC is working to create a competitive broadband delivery model that will surely provide even more competition. It could also weaken broadcasters' competitive position if they are asked—or forced—to give up spectrum to be used for wireless broadband.

Letting the newspaper and broadcast platforms combine isn't going to solve either of those industries' troubles, but it would seem a no-brainer, particularly given the focus on new models of journalism that might help save the kind of local news and information that both newspapers and local broadcasting provide. There is even talk of a government-supported nonprofit model.

Instead, how about a government-facilitated for-profit model that would require the government to get out of the way rather than insert itself into the process? This prospect should disturb fans of free media.