FCC's Local Motion

A favorite maneuver in Washington is to sideline a hot issue by throwing it to a study committee. It shows action and buys time.

That's what Federal Communications Commission chief Michael Powell seems to have done last week in setting up a task force to study ways to promote local news in TV and radio - perhaps even to save it.

Mr. Powell isn't convinced by his critics that a FCC decision in June to allow greater concentration of broadcasting ownership could diminish the amount of local broadcast news in the US. But he's at least willing to look for solutions.

His action comes as Congress appears ready to pass a bill aimed at overturning the FCC ruling, which, among other things, allows a media firm with local TV stations to reach up to 45 percent of US households instead of the standing 35 percent.

Powell's study task force may help allay public fears that the new ownership rule changes will stifle diversity, and further homogenize what Americans see or hear on radio and television. Or it could just be eyewash.

His actions are based on a view that new technologies, from satellite TV to Web radio, are bringing more competition and thus diversity to US media, and that many of those companies will meet any consumer demand for local news. In fact, one part of the FCC's ruling allows a company to own a newspaper and a TV outlet in the same city. In cities where stations are owned by companies that also own newspapers, according to a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, broadcasts are more informative and have a greater focus on local issues and a more diverse mix of opinion.

And for one technology - noncommercial, low-power FM radio broadcasts that reach only a few miles - Powell also said he will rapidly expand the number of licenses.

That's good news for over 1,200 applicants for such stations who have been waiting many months for FCC approval. Such broadcasts, while extremely local, should find a market niche that many national media companies won't fill.

Still, opening the way for more local radio may not be enough to fend off critics in Congress of the new media-ownership rules. Only a presidential veto may save Powell's plan.

In the meantime, Powell is studying up fast on how to spread local news.

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