WASHINGTON, DC: Fearing, perhaps, that the sands of time are running out for Republican control of the Federal Communications Commission, its White House-appointed chairman Kevin J Martin is again scratching at the persistent sore that irritates some of America's largest media conglomerates.

The lesion in question is the longstanding media ownership rule that prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market.

Among the thwarted media billionaires eager to rewrite the rulebook are Rupert Murdoch and Chicago investor Samuel Zell, the latter currently in the throes of acquiring the Tribune Company which has both newspaper and TV interests.

The News Corporation chairman/ceo has also lobbied long and loud against the rule that prevents him from owning both The New York Post and a Fox TV station in the Big Apple.

The lifting of the ban - which is opposed by the FCC's two Democrat members and a host of consumer, labor and civil rights advocacy groups - has been out for consultation in six markets over the past eighteen months.

But with the issue dragging on, the Democrats in control of Congress and a presidential change barely a year away, Martin is clearly aware that time is of the essence if the media barons are to be appeased.

"We've had six hearings around the country already; we've done numerous studies; we've been collecting data for the last eighteen months; and the issues have been pending for years," he says.

"I think it is an appropriate time to begin a discussion to complete this rule-making and complete these media ownership issues."

However, those who feel the rules are just fine as they stand, fear that Martin is about to use his majority to drive through a change that will, to say the least, be highly controversial.

Congress too is girding its loins for a fight. Says Democrat Senator Byron L Dorgan: "This is a big deal because we have way too much concentration of media ownership in the United States."

"If the FCC chairman intends to do something by the end of the year, then there will be a firestorm of protest and I'm going to be carrying the wood."

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff