FCC Eyes Dismantling of Media Ownership Barriers

16 September 2002

The US Federal Communications Commission last week started a process that could result in a media ownership free-for-all.

Among the regulations in the firing line are those limiting national and local television ownership – especially the rule barring joint proprietorship of any of the major four television networks – plus ownership of broadcast stations by local newspapers.

Said FCC chairman Michael Powell, a Bush nominee known for his skepticism about the necessity for many of the current controls: “This is the most comprehensive undertaking of media ownership regulations, I believe, in the commission's history.” Powell insists, however, he is approaching the review with an open mind.

On the other side of the political divide, Michael Copps, the lone Democrat on the Republican dominated FCC panel, is pressing for caution in rewriting rules designed to safeguard diversity, competition and localism in broadcasting.

Under review are the regulations that:

• Control common ownership of radio and television stations in a market.

• Limit a single television network to owning stations that reach 35 percent of the national audience;

• Prevent Fox, ABC, CBS or NBC from buying one another;

• Prohibit most daily newspapers from owning nearby broadcast stations;

• Place restrictions on one company owning two television stations in the same market;

• Restrict local radio ownership in individual markets.

Separately, the FCC announced it also is contemplating support for the Federal Trade Commission’s plan to build a national ‘don’t call’ list similar to Britain's Telephone Preference Service and designed to minimize the number of unsolicited sales calls made to consumers.

Says chairman Powell: “Telemarketing practices have changed significantly, the number of telemarketing calls received by consumers has increased exponentially, and the technologies used by telemarketers have become more sophisticated.”

Support from the FCC would strengthen the FTC’s relatively weak hand in the matter as its sovereignty does not extend to three major telemarketing sectors: financial services, insurance and telecommunications. The FCC, however, does have jurisdiction in these areas and said last week it aimed to review the rules in the light of a torrent of consumer complaints.

The Direct Marketing Association is not best pleased at the intervention of the two federal bodies. The regulation of unsolicited telemarketing calls, insists DMA president Robert Wientzen, “is something the private sector can handle in its own way.”

The DMA maintains its own 4.5 million-strong don’t-call register but its remit extends only to the association’s relatively limited membership. Wientzen has previously suggested that the DMA would oppose a national registry on grounds that it would restrict its members’ right to free speech.

But the director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, J Howard Beales III, denied the don’t-call register is an attempt to limit free speech, seeing it instead as a defense of people’s right to privacy. Telemarketers could be fined up to $11,000 for calling a number on the list.

Beales proclaimed himself “delighted to see the FCC was going ahead” with similar proposals to legislate for a national register.

Data sourced from: AdWeek.com and Washington Post Online; additional content by WARC staff