WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has turned down an appeal by media companies of government restrictions on the ownership of a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market, leaving the rules in place and sending the contentious issue once again back to the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC is in the midst of its periodic review of media ownership rules, which broadcasters and news organizations have argued are outdated in the Internet era. The agency relaxed some of the rules in 2007, after the last review. But an appeals court tossed out the looser regulations, which largely applied to the top 20 U.S. markets, saying the FCC hadn't followed proper procedures in making the changes.
The Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear an appeal of that lower court ruling by Media General Inc., the National Assn. of Broadcasters, Tribune Co. (which owns the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5) and other media companies.
Media General, Tribune and the broadcasters said they were disappointed. But both sides in the case had thought it unlikely the high court would accept an appeal that revolved around procedural issues.
"This was a long shot," said Shaun Sheehan, vice president of Tribune Co., which owns multiple media properties in Los Angeles, Chicago, south Florida and Hartford, Conn. "We're pursuing relief in any venue we can find."
The Supreme Court's decision will not affect Tribune's expected emergence from bankruptcy in the coming months, he said.
The company has a permanent waiver from media ownership rules in Chicago and temporary waivers in the other three markets, pending the FCC's broad review of the regulations. In December, the FCC proposed some changes to the rules similar to the 2007 revisions. After bankruptcy, Tribune's owners must obtain new waivers from the FCC.
Since 1975, the FCC has banned so-called cross-ownership of newspapers and TV and radio stations in the same city. But it frequently has granted waivers.
Media companies had argued to the Supreme Court that the rules were no longer needed because people have many more ways to access news. But public interest groups said the increased demand for wireless spectrum by telecommunications companies made media ownership rules important to preserving diverse voices on the public airwaves.
"The public still gives broadcasters exclusive use of this finite and valuable resource free of charge, as well as other important privileges, in exchange for certain, reasonable commitments," said the Prometheus Radio Project and other groups that had challenged the FCC's 2007 loosening of the rules.
In July, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia rejected the looser rules because the FCC hadn't given the public enough time to comment on the proposals. The appeals court also affirmed the ownership limits the FCC had left in place.
The FCC and the Justice Department argued the government had the right to limit ownership of public airwaves to ensure "the public has access to a multiplicity of information sources." A spokesman for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski declined to comment.