A surprise order preventing the Federal Communications Commission from imposing its controversial new media-ownership rules was issued Wednesday by a three-judge federal appeals court in Philadelphia.

The unexpected move blocks the Bush administration’s easing of the ownership caps that impeded America’s largest media conglomerates from adding new markets and geographic areas. It is widely seen as a rebuff for FCC chairman Michael K Powell, a presidential appointee and son of the more famous Colin.

Powell had argued that the rules as they stood – capping TV and radio ownership at 25% of reach – had become unworkable after being overturned by several federal court decisions in actions brought by Big Media. In June, despite vigorous opposition, the cap was raised to 35% by the FCC’s five commissioners after a 3-2 vote along party political lines.

The 35% cap has since encountered even fiercer hostility in Congress, where it appears likely to be overturned by bills commanding broad bipartisan support both in the Senate and the House. There is also a flood of pending litigation aimed at blocking the revised cap and other new rules.

Meantime, the court’s order blocks all the new rules from taking effect, at least until the outcome of the litigation, likely to be many months hence. The order also raises doubts as to whether the rules will ever be allowed to take effect.

Among the FCC rules impeded by the Philadelphia court is one allowing the same company to own newspapers and broadcast stations in the same city. Another frozen ‘liberalization’ is that which would enable a company to own as many as three television stations and eight radio stations in the same market.

FCC spokesman David Fiske expressed surprise at the court’s order, adding: “While we are disappointed by the decision by the court to stay the new rules, we will continue to vigorously defend them and look forward to a decision by the court on the merits.”

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