It looks like the FCC's long-delayed multiple ownership proceeding won't be decided this summer. The FCC has asked for public comment on the report submitted by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council ("MMTC") addressing the likely impact on minority ownership of broadcast stations of allowing more media cross-ownership. Moths ago, the FCC delayed the resolution of the proceeding to allow for the submission of this report (see our article here). The issue of minority ownership, and the impact of any ownership deregulation has been one of the big obstacles to any decision in this proceeding. Relaxation of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership prohibitions have been proposed, and one might think that the preservation of newspapers might be of paramount importance to the FCC. In fact, the Commission has been concerned about complaints from certain “public interest” groups who fear the impact that such combinations would have on the potential for more minority ownership. So this report was commissioned by MMTC, an organization dedicated to promoting minority ownership in all media. Now that the report has been submitted, the FCC needs to wait for public comment on its findings before any decisions in the ownership proceeding are made. Comments on the report are due on July 22, and Replies can be filed through August 6.
The FCC has already delayed the ownership proceeding at least once while taking comments on minority ownership issues. See our article from December, when the FCC asked for comments on the impact of cross-ownership on the prospects for minority ownership. The call for the December comments was initiated by the release of an FCC summary of minority ownership gleaned from FCC ownership report filings. In filings made in response to the FCC's December comment deadline, some parties suggested that the findings of the FCC data revealed that minority ownership prospects were bleak, and that cross-ownership would make them bleaker, while others suggested just the opposite. Others contended that the two questions really were not related - that there were other reasons, like the lack of access to capital, that really explained the difficulties that all potential new media entrants have. The release of the new study is quite likely to prompt a similar response, with comments likely to present a spectrum of opinions.
The report, prepared by BIA/Kelsey, a company specializing in the financial analysis of media companies, interviewed a number of broadcasters in markets with and without newspaper/broadcast cross-owned combinations to attempt to determine if broadcasters (and minority broadcasters in particular) would identify cross-ownership as a principal competitive concern in these markets. The report concludes that there was little evidence of such cross-ownership as being the cause of financial concerns. Yet, already, certain citizens groups have come out with comments challenging the conclusions reached by the study. See, for instance, these comments of Free Press.
It seems clear that there will always be those who object to any sort of media consolidation – even between newspapers struggling to maintain their place in the media mix in many markets and broadcasters. We have repeatedly posed the question, as originally raised by one member of the DC trade press, if the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule will outlive the newspaper itself. With the continued controversy, and the possibility that the decision will simply be pushed aside until the next Quadrennial review of the multiple ownership rules, that may well be the case.