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FCC may look to redefine how it measures media concentration

The Federal Communications Commission has unveiled the topics it is looking to discuss as it considers revising its media ownership rules, and one area it is looking to explore could have ramifications for future mergers between broadcast and cable companies and newspaper companies.

Specifically, the FCC said it will probe whether it could continue to enforce regulations regarding media concentration by industry or should it find an "alternative structure to determine an ownership limit for all media within a relevant market."

GENACHOWSKI Cutting through the bureaucratic speak, what the FCC is saying is that currently it regulates broadcast, radio and cable as separate businesses and now wants to know if in some areas there should be a one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme when it comes to determining media concentration.

For example, a broadcaster is allowed to own TV stations that reach about 39% of the country. Until recently, cable operators could own systems that reached 30% of the country (a D.C. Circuit Court recently tossed that regulation, but the FCC has said it will appeal that decision). So in theory, one media company could own TV stations reaching almost 40% and cable systems reaching 30% and still be in compliance with the regulations.

That the FCC is looking at reevaluating how it measures media could be a good or bad thing for the industry depending on what direction the Obama administration wants to take. The consensus is that his FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, will look more harshly on media concentration than the Bush and Clinton administrations did.

The FCC did not provide details on just what it meant by "relevant market." Does it mean a particular city or an industry? If it means a city, then that would probably be good news to the business because those regulations are pretty tight already. But if it means an industry, that might be bad news. Figuring out how the FCC operates is not fun. There are lots of contradictions. For example, a company can only own one full-service broadcast network but can own as many cable networks as it wants. And before you remind me that broadcasters are regulated because they use public airwaves while cable networks don't, the FCC also says a company can't own a newspaper and TV in the same city, and yet last time I looked the FCC doesn't regulate the newspaper industry. (Tribune Co., the Los Angeles Times' parent, has waivers for its newspaper and TV combinations in several cities.)

The media ownership workshops start the first week in November and should be fun to watch. Well, as fun as any gathering of lawyers, activists, regulators and industry executives can be, anyway.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

 
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