About the Media Ownership Rules

 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is once again considering relaxing the media ownership rules.  So what specific rules might they change or eliminate?

 

Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership

 

Newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership refers to a single company owning both a local newspaper and a local television station in one community.  For more than 30 years, the FCC has had a rule in place to prevent this practice.  The rationale for the cross-ownership ban is clear: A single owner deprives a community of important, diverse sources of news, information and opinion.

 

Big Media argues that they can provide better journalism to a community by sharing the resources of the print and television news staffs.  However, in cities where the FCC has allowed newspaper-television combinations (under "grandfather" clauses or by granting temporary waivers), there have been cases of cross-promotion replacing substantive reporting, disregard of diverse and critical voices, and inadequate coverage of the media business itself. 

 

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin believes that the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban is obsolete, and that it "needs to be updated."

 

 

Radio/Television Cross-Ownership

 

Radio/television cross-ownership refers to the number of television and radio stations a single company can own in one community.  The rules differ depending on the size of the media market.  In any city, a company may own both 1 television station and 1 radio station.  In addition:

 

 if there are at least 10 independently owned media voices in a market…  …a company may own up to
2 television stations and up to 4 radio stations.
 if there are at least 20 independently owned media voices in a market…   …a company may own up to
2 television stations and up to 6 radio stations OR
1 television station and up to 7 radio stations.

 

 

The radio/television cross-ownership rules were put in place to prevent a single company from having the ability to shut out diverse voices and opinions.

 

 

Local TV Multiple Ownership (a.k.a. "Duopoly")

 

Generally, a company can own only one television station in a community.  However if there are at least eight other stations in the market, a single company can own 2 television stations, as long as one of the stations is not among the 4 highest-ranked stations in the market.

 

Diversity in local television ownership promotes competition, and the more competition there is, the better our news and programming are.  A 2005 study found that duopoly stations (two stations in a market controlled by a single owner) aired "significantly less local news programming than their same market non-duopoly counterparts."

 

 

Local Radio Ownership

 

The local radio ownership rules depend on the size of the market.

 

  If a market has:  then one company can own:
       at least 45 radio stations        up to 8 radio stations
       between 30 and 44 radio stations        up to 7 radio stations
       between 15 and 29 radio stations        up to 6 radio stations
       fewer than 14 radio stations        up to 5 radio stations,
      but not more than 50% of the stations in the market

 

There are also additional rules to limit the number of stations a single company can own within the AM and FM bands.

 

Local radio is an area that has seen massive consolidation since the 1996 Telecommunications Act deregulated the radio ownership rules.  Before 1996, the national cap was set at 40 stations for a single owner.  Today, Clear Channel owns approximately 1,200 stations, and we've seen a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of play lists and less local news on radio.

 

 

Dual Network

 

The dual network rule prohibits a merger between any of the four major television networks - ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

 

 

National Television Ownership/Audience Cap

 

The national television ownership rule limits a single company from owning television stations that would reach more than 39 percent of U.S. households.  (This rule is unlikely to be changed by the Federal Communications Commission this year, since it was recently addressed by Congress.  The FCC proposed raising the limit from 35 percent to 45 percent in 2003, but Congress stepped in during the legal battles over the ownership rules and passed legislation setting the cap at 39 percent.)

 

There is a loophole in the regulations that allows some media companies to get around the 39 percent cap.  When the rule was originally written, there was a substantial difference in the signal strength between VHF stations (TV channels 2 through 13) and UHF stations (TV channels 14 through 69).  Therefore when UHF stations' viewership was measured, it was automatically discounted by 50 percent.  The UHF discount remains in place today, despite cable, satellite and digital broadcasting negating any difference in signal strength.  One media owner that has taken advantage of the UHF discount loophole is ION Media Networks (formerly Paxson Communications).  ION owns 54 stations reaching 62.6 percent of the national audience - but because of the UHF discount, the FCC considers them to reach only 31.3 percent.