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Update FCC Media Rules

May 16, 2003

The Federal Communications Commission is near the end of a controversial review of rules that limit the number of outlets a media company can own. Those ownership caps were established decades ago to encourage diversity in radio and television station ownership and program content.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell wisely acknowledges that 1st Amendment protections make any talk of media ownership prohibitions, particularly when it comes to newspapers, "an uncomfortable -- indeed unauthorized -- place for government officials to tread." But the alternative path to diversity -- giving the government power to dictate content -- is also unacceptable.

The caps, set in place between 1940 and 1975, form the heart of the nation's admittedly imperfect bid to foster variety in broadcast ownership and programming. That goal is why the FCC limited the number of radio and television stations a single company could own, prohibited newspaper companies from operating television stations and restricted the number of broadcast outlets that individual companies and national networks could own.

But the FCC no longer can opt to simply maintain the status quo. The 1996 Telecommunications Act requires commissioners to modify or drop rules that can't be supported by empirical evidence; earlier, decisions were based largely on anecdotal evidence gathered in public hearings.

Reports that a Powell-led majority on the FCC is on the verge of relaxing some of the caps is sparking harsh criticism from opponents who see change as a threat to the FCC's mandate to promote diversity, local control and competition.

Media companies, including Tribune Co., which owns The Times and KTLA-TV, would benefit from some of the proposed changes. Having said that, the fact remains that some of the existing rules are outdated. The caps were set in a simpler, analog era, when three major networks dominated the airwaves, robust newspapers competed for readers and consumers had yet to hear of cable television, the Internet and satellite TV.

The caps preceded today's complicated media world, in which cable television draws a larger share of prime-time viewers than broadcast television and newspapers are scrambling to lure consumers from broadcast media and the Internet. It no longer makes sense to maintain limits -- such as the rule that newspapers can't own television stations in the same area, no matter how large the market -- that don't take into account the tremendous changes that have taken place in recent years.

But action is needed to ensure that the necessary goals of competition aren't crushed as the media industry continues to consolidate. News reports suggest that the FCC intends to encourage diversity by maintaining caps that would keep media giants from dominating the airwaves in smaller communities. The FCC should reject a separate staff recommendation to loosen restrictions that would make it easier for one giant network to gobble up another, effectively controlling airwaves from coast to coast.

By throwing out antiquated rules but preserving ones that still offer necessary consumer protections, the FCC can fulfill its obligation to foster both competition and the varied voices of media.

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