In a Public Notice issued yesterday, the FCC announced that it would do a series of open "workshops" in connection with its review of the broadcast multiple ownership rules – the rules that restrict the number of radio or television stations which one party can own and which restrict the cross-ownership of radio and TV stations and newspapers in the same market. The FCC is poised to begin its quadrennial review of the ownership rules in 2010. The open proceedings just announced (without details of how many workshops will be held) will be used to gather information for the Commission’s review of the rules. According to the public notice "the Commission will seek viewpoints and information from a broad range of experts; consumers; public interest and trade associations; labor unions; media industry representatives, both traditional and new; and other interested persons," as the first step in this review process. So what is this all about?
As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC was instructed to do a regular review of broadcast multiple ownership rules, seemingly with the intent of reducing the prohibitions of those rules as part of the general deregulatory spirit of that Act. Originally, proceedings were to review the rules every two years, a Biennial Review. However, those reviews kept dragging on and becoming consolidated with each other so Congress eventually amended the law to require that the review take place only once every four years. But each time the FCC has taken action on the rules, especially any time there has been any liberalization, there has been a major outcry from consumer groups that they were left out of the process. Perhaps the just announced hearings are an attempt to short circuit that protest by getting the public involved even before the process begins.
Some of the fears of the public being left out of the process arose in connection with the ownership review that was completed in the summer of 2003, when the FCC concluded that local television ownership rules could be relaxed, as could the prohibitions against the cross-ownership of radio, TV and/or newspapers in the same market. Then-Chairman Michael Powell was criticized by many for leading this reform without any serious public input. After the decision was made, Commissioners Copps and Adelstein led their own public hearings around the country, causing the Chairman to initiate a series of his own public hearings on the performance of broadcasters in serving their communities, which led to the still-unresolved localism proceeding.
But even with hearings, the Commission isn’t assured that there will be no public outcry when it changes its rules. In late 2007, after the localism hearings and hearings on the changes in the ownership rules, the Commission finally got around to its re-consideration of the 2003 decision, which had been thrown out by the Court of Appeals, . The 2007 decision, loosening only the cross-ownership rules between television stations and daily newspapers in the largest markets, was met with a hail of protests that the public didn’t have a sufficient opportunity to comment on the final rules themselves before the Commissioners voted on them (even though the Chairman did reveal his tentative conclusion a month before it was voted on, giving the public a limited comment period). Even with all that public input, the decision was met with a Congressional hearing and serious complaints about the process.
Whether the Commission, whenever it finally gets around to completing the upcoming quadrennial review, will let the public review and comment on any new rules before they are finally adopted remains to be seen. But, seemingly, no matter what the decision and the process by which it is made, someone will be disappointed and will complain that the process was unfair. Perhaps that is just the essence of Washington.