The Federal Communications Commission voted Wednesday to begin a review of its rules on media ownership but Democrats on the panel objected that the process didn’t envision sufficient public comment.
With a Republican majority in place after many months with a vacancy, the commission addressed the controversial issue of limits on the number of radio and television stations that one owner could have and the limits on cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcasters.
The majority Republicans set the parameters for addressing the thorny ownership issue. While supporting a review of the rules, both Democrats recorded their dissent that the planned review didn’t go far enough in seeking public comment.
Under existing law, the commission is required to review the ownership issue every four years. Two years ago, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ordered the FCC to revisit the rules as it stayed many of the changes the commission made in them in 2003. At that time, the appellate court said the commission used an improper procedure for changing the rules.
The Supreme Court in June 2005 declined to intervene on appeals from broadcast and newspaper groups.
Backed by the panel’s other two Republican members, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said the new review would contain more public hearings, new research studies and a longer comment period than the panel used last time.
The lack of a GOP majority proved troublesome for Martin last summer when the Republicans and Democrats on the panel couldn’t agree on how to begin the process of considering new ownership rules. The issue was shelved minutes before it was slated to be discussed at a monthly FCC meeting.
Noting that some 3,300 radio and TV stations have changed hands in the last three years, Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, said that even under the old rules, “consolidation grows, localism suffers and diversity dwindles.”
He said he had wanted at least a dozen public hearings in the new rulemaking proceeding, but expected there would be about half that number.
In April, Martin had sought support from newspaper publishers to help his agency lift the ban on ownership of both newspapers and broadcasting outlets in the same city. On Wednesday, he declined to predict how the review would come out on the issue.
Previous heads of the FCC have sought to get the cross-ownership ban lifted, and the agency finally adopted a rule doing so in 2003. The following year, the federal appellate court sent that decision back to the FCC for further consideration, while acknowledging that the agency was right to remove the blanket prohibition on newspapers owning broadcast outlets in the cities they serve.
Media companies that own both newspapers and broadcasting outlets have long pressed for a removal of the ban, which they also say is outdated due to far greater competition among media outlets today than there was 30 years ago.
Consumer groups have opposed the drive to lift the ban on newspaper publishers owning broadcasting outlets, saying it would lead to the further consolidation of media ownership and could reduce the diversity of voices in local media.