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If FCC relaxes rules, Viacom's ready

Ownership restrictions are expected to ease. The company already has one more station in L.A. than is allowed.

May 30, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

While the Federal Communications Commission is expected to relax its ownership rules when it meets Monday, increasing the number of stations broadcast companies can own in a given market, broadcasting giant Viacom already has a head start on its rivals.

For a year, the company, which owns CBS and Infinity Radio, has owned an extra station in Los Angeles beyond what FCC rules allow. The purchase of KCAL-TV Channel 9 in May 2002 gave the company two television and seven radio stations in Los Angeles, and the FCC said Viacom had to divest itself of one by the end of last year.

Current FCC rules limit a company to eight stations in a market the size of Los Angeles, so to comply with the law, Infinity asked to place KFWB-AM (980) in the hands of a trustee, meaning Infinity would still own the station but would abdicate any control over it. Observers saw it as a temporary move until the expected easing of FCC rules. But the proposed trusteeship never won FCC approval, and may never have to, depending on the outcome of Monday's meeting.

Numerous public-interest groups, ranging from the National Rifle Assn. to Common Cause, have lobbied the agency to hold off on its rules changes, saying that the new regulations will encourage ownership consolidation that they contend is against the public interest, because it will stifle diversity on the airwaves.

But FCC Chairman Michael Powell said most of the regulatory agency's rules are outdated, created between 1940 and 1975, and that new technologies such as cable and satellite systems, and the Internet, provide a greater diversity of outlets and voices than ever imagined.

"While many view big as always antithetical to the public interest, scale and efficiency are becoming more vital to delivering quality news and public affairs. The world is getting smaller," Powell said in a March 27 speech to the Media Institute in Washington. "This complex world requires ever more sophisticated newsgathering and delivery capability. The scale and resources necessary to do it are increasing."

He also said he doesn't expect a "gold rush" of station purchases after Monday's meeting.

But Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the five-member commission -- both of whom want to delay the changes -- noted in a recent speech that more than $2 billion in radio transactions took place in the first month after the last sweeping change, when Congress eased ownership restrictions with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He cited predictions that more transactions are in the wings this time around.

The other company maxed out in Los Angeles, broadcast behemoth Clear Channel Communications, is often the lightning rod in ownership and consolidation discussions, in part because of its size and speedy growth. Before 1996, Clear Channel owned fewer than 100 stations nationwide. Now it controls more than 1,200, including the maximum of eight in Los Angeles.

Opponents cite Clear Channel as the prime example of deregulation run amok. But Andy Levin, Clear Channel's senior vice president for government affairs, told the company's hometown newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, that companies should be able to own up to a dozen stations in large markets such as New York and L.A.

If Levin got his wish, what would Clear Channel do with four more stations in Los Angeles? What would they sound like? Listeners will have to wait to see if it comes to pass. Charlie Rahilly, Clear Channel's senior vice president, West Coast division, declined to pull out his crystal ball, saying he'd rather wait until after Monday, "given the sensitivity of the ownership-rules review."


Cutting Back on the Sage

Fans of Larry Elder will be hearing a little less of the self-described "Sage from South Central" come Monday, as his four-hour weekday show gets cut back to three.

His program, usually heard from 3 to 7 p.m. on KABC-AM (790), will now end at 6 p.m., said station spokeswoman Linda Tang. She said Elder invoked a clause in his contract allowing him to reduce his hours.

"I choose to do this now," Elder said in a news release, "because I sincerely believe that I can do a stronger show if I focus and concentrate on producing the best three hours on radio every single day. I will continue to stay committed to giving listeners 100% of my energy and effort Monday through Friday."

Elder's program got cut to only two hours in 1997, by previous management at KABC, after a group calling itself the Talking Drum Community Forum took issue with his conservative views and advocated a boycott of the program and its sponsors. The anonymous campaign -- its backers never publicly identified themselves -- called Elder's show "the most racist, anti-black program in America," but good ratings, a counter-protest by fans and a management change led to the restoration of the show's full length.

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