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Mapping the Boundaries

January 19, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

Complete relaxation of the media ownership caps, as one analyst put it, could clear the way for a massive conglomerate called AOL Time Warner-NBC-Clear Channel-Gannett-New York Times-Tribune.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell says such mega-consolidation won't be allowed. And exactly how the various federal regulations ultimately will change remains unclear.

But a major revision could have a significant effect on the media landscape. Some possibilities:

National TV ownership cap. Temporarily, Viacom Inc., owner of CBS, and News Corp., which owns Fox, is permitted to exceed the general limit on coverage by owning TV stations that reach more than 35% of the national market. If the rule is lifted, a single company conceivably could own TV stations in every market. CBS, for example, could swallow up every CBS-affiliated station nationwide. That's why the network affiliates oppose this.

Cable TV ownership cap. The FCC is considering allowing a single cable company to control as much as 45% of cable systems nationwide. The previous 30% limit was struck down by a federal court. The new limit, in theory, could put almost the entire U.S. cable industry under the control of two giants, probably AT&T Comcast and AOL Time Warner Inc.

Local TV station, or duopoly, rule. The same company cannot own more than two TV stations in large markets. If this rule goes away, expect companies such as Tribune Co. to attempt to beef up their presence in target cities, such as Los Angeles, by purchasing additional TV stations. Relaxation of the TV-radio cross-ownership ban would permit the same company also to own local radio stations.

TV and newspaper cross-ownership. The current ban on one company owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market probably will go away. That means a company such as Tribune, which in addition to owning local TV stations, also could control the local newspaper, giving it enhanced control over what citizens hear, see and read. A few dozen such combinations have been allowed on a case-by-case basis. Tribune, which owns both the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5 (pending the next license renewal for KTLA), is pressing for a revision in FCC regulations that would allow this situation to be permanent.

Dual network rule. This regulation prevents the big networks -- CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox -- from merging. If it is lifted, NBC, now owned by General Electric Co., could be sold to Viacom or News Corp., for instance.

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