Will approval of more media mergers change TV?

FCC votes 3-2 along party lines to allow growing concentration of broadcast and print outlets in US.

The stage was set Monday by the Federal Communications Commission for media ownership to become a hot-button issue in the United States.

As was expected, the five-member commission voted 3-2 along party lines to ease ownership rules, allowing more cross-ownership of media outlets in a single market and upping the amount of TV homes a single company can reach nationally.

The prospect of radio, TV, and newspapers all being owned by a single company in a market drew fire from opponents, who argue local coverage will be compromised, as will ultimately the principles of free and diverse speech.

"Commissioner Powell won't be known for changing the rules, but for waking up America to an issue that has a very broad and diverse level of support," said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a citizen advocacy group.

Already, groups like Common Cause are planning meetings with the broad range of opposition groups - from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization for Women - to discuss what action to take next. Opponents say they are working with members of Congress and attorneys to try and come up with lawsuits and legislation that could limit the impact of the changes, or reverse them completely.

Relaxing the rules is of concern to both Democrats and Republicans in Congress - with some 150 members of both parties having asked FCC chairman, Republican Michael Powell, to delay the vote.

On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona plans to hold a hearing with the five commissioners to discuss the changes and the process by which the FCC arrived at them. Members of the Senate Commerce Committee - including Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi - spoke out against the vote on Monday and stressed the bipartisan nature of the opposition. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota said some form of "legislative veto" is being considered by Sentors to challenge the FCC's decision.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps said that prior to the vote the agency received nearly 750,000 responses from the public - most of them opposed to relaxing the rules. Despite the mounting opposition, supporters of media deregulation, like the libertarian Cato Institute, called the changes "incremental" and "modest." Many in favor of the changes argue the media environment is ripe for loosening the rules, with an abundance of cable stations and Internet access available to the public and less need to protect a few media owners.

In a statement issued shortly after the decision on Monday, John Sturm, head of the Newspaper Association of America, said, "The relaxation of the rules will allow newspaper-owned broadcast stations to offer more and better local news and public service programming, as well as all-news formats to radio markets of all sizes.... Local audiences will be the big winners."

The decision was a victory for FCC Chairman Powell, who has faced growing criticism from diverse interests opposed to his move toward deregulation.

"Our actions will advance our goals of diversity and localism," Powell said. He said the old restrictions were too outdated to survive legal challenges and the FCC "wrote rules to match the times."

The amended rules now allow for a single company to own TV stations that reach 45 percent of US TV households nationally, instead of 35 percent. On the local level, cross ownership of a newspaper and TV station in a single city is now permitted in mid-sized and large markets, but would be limited in markets with three or fewer TV stations.

Local TV ownership rules were also changed, allowing one company to own two stations in more markets, and three stations in large cities. A ban on mergers among the four major TV networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox remained in place.

Opponents contend that they don't expect the rules to remain the same forever, but they do expect a more inclusive process for reviewing them - especially when the FCC is charged with protecting the public interest.

In the wake of the Monday's decision, these groups will focus on challenging and reversing the new rules, says Robert McChesney, president and founder of Free Press, a group that advocates Media diversity. Once that's done, he says, then there will be a chance for "real genuine public debate on this issue."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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