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FCC Is Set to Take Fresh Look At Media Ownership

Wall Street Journal | May 30, 2006
By AMY SCHATZ

WASHINGTON -- With Republicans in the majority at the Federal Communications Commission for the first time in 14 months, the agency is poised to begin tackling a host of contentious issues, including changes to media ownership limits.

Senate confirmation Friday of Republican Robert McDowell to fill an empty commission seat marks the beginning of a more active phase at Chairman Kevin Martin's FCC, which has been idle on several fronts while deadlocked 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats.

Mr. McDowell's arrival is likely to have an immediate impact on one issue: consideration of Time Warner Inc.'s and Comcast Corp.'s deal to split Adelphia Communications' assets. Commission Democrats had hoped to impose several conditions, including tougher Internet protections than those required of AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. in their respective mergers last year.

Even before Mr. McDowell was confirmed, the FCC chairman had begun circulating proposals among the other commissioners to reopen two issues: media ownership limits and a requirement that cable operators carry multiple channels from local broadcasters after the transition to digital television instead of just one.

A vote to reopen the debate of media ownership limits may occur at the FCC's regularly scheduled meeting next month, agency officials said. The FCC will take a comprehensive look at what changes should be made, but the review isn't expected to be completed this year.

Even the whiff of possible FCC action has been enough to prompt a stir. Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott and Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota last week sent a letter asking Mr. Martin to have the commission address the issue of local broadcast content before acting on new media ownership rules. An FCC task force was created in 2004 to study the issue, but no report has been issued.

Meanwhile, the cable industry is gearing up to oppose Mr. Martin's must-carry proposal, which has been on broadcasters' wish-list for several years.

"The FCC has twice rejected multicasting and Congress also rejected it during the last session, so there's no evidence that it should be approved," said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

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