In Today’s New York Times, a columnist concludes that the FCC’s multiple ownership proceeding is "yesterday’s news." Looking at the Tribune Company’s recent financial issues and possible sale, the column asks whether anyone should really care about ownership issues in the light of the rapid changes in the media landscape brought about by the digital revolution. Whether or not anyone cares, the changes in media competition, and potentially in the political landscape after next week’s election, may well mean that there will be no significant ownership reform for quite some time, perhaps not until 2009 – after the next Presidential election.
The Times column talks about Tribune’s discussions of selling off its television stations as part of a financial restructuring. (The article does not mention that the New York Times itself is considering the sale of its television stations). Tribune has certainly been one of the parties pushing newspaper-television cross-ownership relief. As they look at restructuring, will they pay attention to the FCC’s proceedings? And Clear Channel was one of the parties in the forefront of attempts to further loosen radio ownership restrictions. They, too, are reportedly considering a financial restructuring or sale. Will these actions distract two of the most active proponents of relaxing the ownership rules?
In the comments in this proceeding filed last week, ABC Disney essentially took itself out of the proceeding saying that they did not advocate changes in the ownership rules, as they are selling their primary radio assets, are out of newspapers, and are investing in new technologies to get their message out. With the opportunities of the Internet distribution of video and audio programming, are there other broadcasters, anxious to own more traditional media, who will take the lead in this proceeding? With over-the-air digital radio and digital television both offering multicast opportunities, do these technologies themselves take some of the urgency out of ownership relief?
If the FCC is not being pushed, when will the decision actually occur? With the FCC promising 5 more field hearings – none of which has yet been scheduled – that phase of the proceeding is likely to go well into 2007. Even after the hearings are completed, the FCC has to come up with some specific rules to adopt. Their Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asked a number of questions, but posed few specific proposals for new rules (see our summary, here). In the FM Allotment proceeding that will be decided at this Friday’s FCC meeting, the proposals were very specific and straightforward, and virtually every party commenting on the matter agreed with the general thrust of the proposal (with only minor differences on some specifics). Yet that proceeding has taken almost a year and a half to resolve – on what was supposed to be an expedited basis.
With a Notice that did not offer specifics – and with the many diverse parties vehemently disagreeing on even the most general of issues in the proceeding, this will not be a case where consensus can be reached leaving the FCC with easy answers. And if there is a Congress with even one house in Democratic hands, the politics of the matter may become even more complex. If the FCC does not conclude the proceeding in the later part of next year, which would seem unlikely given recent history of rulemaking proceedings, we then be in 2008, a Presidential election year. Will the Commission want to decide this matter in an election year, and possibly make media ownership into a campaign issue? With hundreds of thousands of comments already on file, that may be a real concern.
So, is it possible that we will not see a decision until 2009? And what will the media landscape look like then? To use a quaint phrase – stay tuned….