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TV Duop Songs Differ

With Republican FCC commissioners apparently coming to three-vote agreement on significant opportunities for crossownership of local broadcast outlets and newspapers, TV-station groups are turning their lobbying toward making it easier to own two TV stations in midsize and small markets.

Several groups have proposed a variety of ideas that would loosen restrictions on TV duopolies when the FCC completes its sweeping review of broadcast ownership rules.

Currently, the FCC permits duopolies in bigger markets, where eight separately owned stations would remain and only one station is among the four top-rated. Many top TV groups, along with the NAB, say duopolies in big markets are nice but the combos are really needed in smaller markets, where struggling stations would benefit from the efficiencies of scale that paired operations provide.

The big question now is which plan, or variation thereof, will the FCC implement.

Some sources tracking the deliberations predict an idea floated by Hearst-Argyle, which would permit TV pairs in any market as long as collective audience share is 30% or less, has the best shot. The deals also must meet Justice Department/Federal Trade Commission horizontal-merger guidelines. Hearst-Argyle's plan would stand a good chance of passing court muster, sources say, because it mirrors antitrust rules and does not set an arbitrary cutoff point for which markets duopolies can occur.

The "eight-voice test" was struck down by federal appeals judges as an arbitrary limit. Although judges did not indicate that more-lenient duopoly rules were necessarily the way to go, broadcasters think they have persuaded the commission's Republican majority.

Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have been skeptical of the industry's plea for small-market relief, and the Dems' public-advocate allies say permitting more concentration in small markets is the last thing the FCC should be doing.

Other competing plans include the NAB's "10/10" proposal, which would allow pairs in smaller markets when a station with a 10 share would join with a lower-rated station. Case-by-case mergers would be permitted in smaller markets. The plan has pretty much been ruled out by the commissioners, industry sources say.

Likewise, Belo Corp.'s suggestion to eliminate the eight-voice test but preserve a prohibition on mergers between the four top-rated stations is viewed as permitting too many small-market mergers. That argument appears to be hurting a LIN/Raycom plan to permit pairs anywhere unless all stations in a market would have one owner.