Over a year ago, the FCC released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on amendments to the FCC’s multiple ownership rules.  Issues from newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, to local TV and radio ownership limits are all being considered.  Our summary of the issues raised in the NPRM is available here.  The FCC has been holding field hearings throughout the country on its proposals, gathering public comment on the proposals – the most recent having been held in Chicago last night.  Only one more field hearing to go and the Commission will have conducted the six hearings that it promised.  Many, including me, had felt that the timing was such that no decision in this proceeding could be reached until 2008 and, as that is an election year, the decision could quite well be put off until after the election to avoid making it a political issue.  However, there are now signs that some at the FCC are gearing up to try to reach a decision late this year or early next – presumably far enough away from the election for any controversy to quiet before the election.  With this push, others are expressing concern about a rush to judgment on the issues, and may well seek to delay it further.

Evidence of the FCC’s increasing attention to the multiple ownership issues include the recent Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, asking questions about minority ownership and making proposals on how that ownership can be encouraged (proposals we summarized here).  The FCC has also asked for comment on several studies that it commissioned to look at the effects of ownership consolidation in the broadcast media (the public notice asking for comments is here, and the studies can be found here).  Comments on the Further Notice and the ownership studies are due on October 1, with replies due on October 15.  Some have suggested that this time table is unnecessarily accelerated, especially as certain peer review documents on the ownership studies were just recently released.

At last night’s Chicago field hearing, the two Democratic Commissioners expressed their concern about a rush to judgment.  Commissioner Copps, in his Remarks at the hearing, expressed concern over the short time frame given for comments on the issues raised by the Further Notice.  Commissioner Adelstein suggested that the Commission appoint an independent panel of experts to review the ownership studies and report back to the FCC before any decision on the ownership rules is made. 

At this week’s Future of Music Policy Summit in Washington, DC, a legal assistant to Commissioner Adelstein expressed concern over this rush to reach a decision, suggesting that the Chairman wanted to see the decision out before his term ended, and was looking for a decision early next year.  Several Congressional staffers on a panel about Capitol Hill activities that affect the music industry, as well as Senator Dorgan of North Dakota, all also expressed concerns about FCC action in this area, and indicated that both the House and the Senate intended to hold hearings on media consolidation this Fall, before any decision can be reached.

With battle lines being drawn, there are likely to be stormy times ahead in the multiple ownership debate.  In 2003, with a Republican-controlled Congress, there were a number of bipartisan Congressional attempts to roll back the FCC’s relaxation of the ownership rules before the Third Circuit Court or Appeals blocked most of those reforms.  With a Democratic Congress, who knows what would come of any FCC relaxation of those rules in the coming months.  But we may well see that issue play out – and perhaps become a political football in the upcoming elections.