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Republican members of the Federal Communications Commission expressed cautious support on Thursday for an agency proposal to loosen rules limiting mergers among media companies. FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the agency’s two other Republican commissioners have argued that the number of media outlets is growing fast, which means restrictions can be loosened without threatening diversity in programming and content. Critics, including the two Democratic commissioners, warn that relaxing or eliminating the regulations will trigger industry consolidation in radio, print and television, which could reduce consumer choice. “Many new voices have been introduced since the rules have been enacted,” said commissioner Kevin Martin at a hearing on the media rules in Richmond, Va., attended by consumer groups, industry officials and academics. “The number of broadcast networks, for example, has doubled.” Echoing Martin’s comments, commissioner Kathleen Abernathy cited the growing number of TV networks as evidence that consumers have a variety of programming and news sources from which to choose. “It was not that long ago that we only had a choice of three networks and some independent stations to choose from,” she said. “Now, in addition to ABC, CBS and NBC, we have UPN, WB and PaxNet available to us over the air.” The existing media rules under review ban a company from owning a newspaper and broadcast outlet in the same market, restrict mergers among the four major national television networks, limit how many radio stations a company may own and bar a single entity from owning more than eight radio or television licenses in the same market. The FCC also is considering whether to keep regulations that cap the number of viewers a TV operator can reach at 35 percent of the U.S. audience and that ban ownership of two television stations within the same market unless at least eight other competitors are present. By spring, the FCC plans to complete a review that will combine six different media ownership rules into a single “omnibus” regulation. Martin said he favors lifting the restriction on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership. “As long as enough different voices are available, we should allow newspapers and broadcast companies to merge,” he said. Powell did not openly pledge support for the plan to loosen the media rules. But he did say the FCC must ground any new regulations in empirical data solid enough to withstand court challenges. He added that the agency has never won a case to defend such rules in a federal court. “This is not an enviable record,” Powell said. Last year the court told the FCC it needs to provide more data to support a limit on the size of the national audience any single broadcast company may reach. In order to protect future telecom rules, Powell commissioned 12 studies to consider the effects of media mergers on diversity, competition and the availability of local programming. But Democratic commissioner Michael Copps charged that the studies are flawed and fail to ask important questions on key issues, such as the extent of minority ownership in the U.S. media. Thursday’s meeting was an effort by Powell to address such concerns. “Many Americans do not even know about the FCC and this review process,” Copps said. “We are on the verge of altering the media ownership landscape without a national debate.” Copps expressed concern that, even with the growing number of newspaper, radio and broadcast outlets, media ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated. He added that the number of minority owners has declined significantly since 1996. But Abernathy said that larger media outlets often provide better and more diverse information than individual stations because they have greater resources. “Restrictions that may have been needed in the past to ensure competition and diversity may actually make it more difficult for programmers and stations owners to provide compelling quality programming in light of the competition they are facing from other sources,” she said. Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said he was concerned that, even with the advent of the Internet, most Americans use Web sites owned by major media companies. “Is the Internet really a substitute for programming, or is it controlled by major media?” he asked. �Copyright 2003, The Deal, LLC. All rights reserved.

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