Upton Proposes Ownership Changes

A high ranking Republican legislator has asked the FCC to raise the ownership caps on radio and allow newspaper/TV station crossownership.

House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin suggesting the commission issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking allowing the ownership of more radio stations in a market and scrapping the newspaper/broadcast crossownership ban.

Upton told a Media Institute audience in Washington Thursday that the scarcity rationale no longer justified capping radio station ownership anywhere except in some small markets. The explosion in new media should eliminate concern about diversity of opinions, he said. "The unfortunate reality is that our nation's ownership laws do not reflect or even acknowledge" that explosion.

But calling himself a political pragmatist, Upton said he had proposed to Martin that the FCC change the rules from no more than 8 commonly owned radio stations in any market, to 10 stations in markets of at least 60 stations, and 12 in markets with at least 75.

He also asked Martin to scrap the TV/Newspaper crossownership ban.

The FCC tried to loosen ownership regs, including scrapping the newspaper/TV crossownership ban, but its deregulatory rewrite was remanded by the courts for better justification. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is waiting for a third Republican commissioner to before weighing in with that rewrite, which means probably not until April at the earliest, with possibly no final document until after the elections in November.

For his part, Upton pledged to mark-up a rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act in his subcommittee by March, and have it to the full committee by Easter and a floor vote a little after Easter. The act is being updated to reflect the roll-out of broadband. He said that, "if all goes according to plan" there will be a mark-up in the Senate this spring as well.

Upton argued that the FCC needed to loosen its ownership restrictions to give broadcasters a fighting chance against new competition, for example the hundreds of channels delivered by satellite radio, or cable music services, or iPods, or wireless networks, or 10 other inventions yet to be born. Given that, he said, his proposal to the FCC was "embarrassingly modest."

Congress, he said, should encourage the growth of traditional media. "Our role in Congress," he said, "should be as a partner, encouraging growth for the “old media” – newspapers, radio and television, rather than the executioner, carrying out a death sentence.We cannot have an industry guided by a 1920’s playbook. Although the term “level playing field” has become a cliché –that is exactly what we must strive for."

For their part, broadcasters must be more innovative, he said, but government "has the responsibility to insure that broadcasting is not so shackled by outdated ownership that it is shot dead before the duel (he actually said "that it is, in fact, dead before it's dead," but that was a slip, not a substantive amendment, his communications director assured B&C).

On the issue of indecency, Upton said that Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens has said he would move a bill, and Upton would hold him to it.
The House last year passed an Upton sponsored bill upping indecency fines. Stevens had earlier expressed the hope that industry efforts on a rating system and family-friendly cable tiers might obviate the need for any of several content-related bills, but has since suggested a bill was in the offing, most likely a complement to the Upton fine-raising bill, which is a byproduct of the now 2-plus-year-old Jane Jackson reveal in combination with Bono's Golden Globes F-word of now several years back.
Reading from a B&C Media Institute Op Ed piece in Monday's issue, Upton said that the piece raised the question of whether policymakers see the big picture or are "mired" in another era. "I'm here to tell you some folks get it," he said, "I know I do."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.