Today’s Los Angeles Times contains an article about FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s policy of holding a series of open hearings on possible changes to the FCC’s multiple ownership rules. The article contrasts this policy to that of previous Chairman Michael Powell, who held only one hearing and was criticized by many "public interest" groups for a lack of openness in the proceeding when the 2003 ownership proceeding loosened the ownership rules in several respects. The article notes that times have changed in many respects – that many companies previously interested in a relaxation of the rules now no longer care – citing divestitures of Disney/ABC and CBS of broadcast holdings in recent months. Of course, the Tribune Company may still have newspaper-broadcast cross ownership issues that need to be resolved (particularly as grandfathering issues may well come to the forefront as the company seeks FCC approval for its planned transfer of control), and other newspaper companies have similar interests. The article does not mention the other area where many broadcasters are still very interested in regulatory relief – the extension of TV duopoly into smaller markets where the economics of TV station operation, and the increased costs of the digital conversion, have caused many to desire a relaxation of the prohibitions against owning more than one TV station in these markets.
The other issue not addressed by the article is the timing of any decision on the ownership rules. While the Commission has committed to the public hearings, they are supposed to continue for the remainder of 2007, thus putting any decision off until 2008. And will the FCC want to risk a possibly controversial decision in a Presidential election year? We think not – so a decision postponed until after the election may well be one decided by a different Commission.