The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is proposing a plan that would wrap up by the end of the year the long-running debate over how many media properties a company should be allowed to own in a single market.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's proposal would allow for public comment on the proposed rules in mid-November and a commission vote on Dec. 18.
Among the rules that are potentially on the chopping block is a ban on one company owning a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market. The rule is of particular interest to Tribune Co., which is the subject of a pending buyout led by real estate magnate Sam Zell.
Tribune has waivers that allow the company to own both newspaper and broadcast properties in New York, Los Angles, Chicago, Hartford/New Haven and Miami/Fort Lauderdale. The waivers will not transfer to the new owners.
But if the FCC agrees to Martin's schedule, and then votes to eliminate the cross-ownership ban, it becomes a moot point, and allows the company to close on the transaction by year's end, as it had hoped.
Martin confirmed the details of his plan in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday. The plan the chairman is considering is far more open and involves far more public input than the process followed by then-Chairman Michael Powell in 2003, Martin said.
Prior to the 3-2 vote to loosen ownership rules in 2003, only one public hearing was conducted. By the close of the current debate, the commission will have conducted eight public hearings all over the country. It will also have completed 10 studies on media ownership at a cost of $368,000.
Following the vote in 2003, in which Martin was in the majority, there was intense criticism from both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and a public outcry. The FCC's decision was eventually invalidated by a federal appeals court.
Martin's pledge to make the rules available for public review a month before the commission vote is a major departure for the agency. "This is an unusual step that I propose we end up taking," he said.
But media consolidation opponents said Wednesday that the chairman may be moving too fast.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said that one month for the public to consider the rule is not enough time.
"If that's his intention, it's going to subvert the public interest," he said. "The FCC needs to learn a lesson here from what happened previously."
The senator is also calling for hearings before the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee, of which he is a member.
During a committee meeting Wednesday he said what Martin has proposed "will set off a firestorm in Congress, and I'll be carrying the wood."
Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein did not object specifically to the Dec. 18 date, but did say the commission has a lot of work yet to do before it should make its decision.
"We need to deal with some long-neglected issues before we tackle the media ownership rules," he said. "We should first address the appalling lack of ownership of media outlets by women and people of color. And we need to implement improvements in how outlets handle issues of concern to local communities."
Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal and international affairs for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, had harsh words for the ownership studies.
"The studies they've commissioned are so flawed and so biased, they have no basis for relaxing media ownership rules," he said. "We will demonstrate this is purely an ideological, politically motivated effort to allow media companies to consolidate and dominate local markets."
Martin defended the studies, saying he allowed opponents to media consolidation to participate in how they were conducted.
"I think we've been open and transparent about both the content of the studies and the authors," he said.
The proposed schedule calls for a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 31; another hearing on Nov. 2 in Seattle; publication of the proposed rule on Nov. 13; and a commission vote on Dec. 18.