mediageek news headlines for the Oct. 25 radio show

These are the news headlines as read on the Oct. 25th edition of the mediageek radio show. In reality, some of these headlines don’t make it to air, since I do the show live and sometimes need to edit on the fly.

Stories in this edition of headlines include: More time sought for media-ownership review; Senate Holds Up Dem FCC Nominee; WMATA/Metro Provides Free Ad Space for Anti-Gay Group

Next week’s headlines will include links to source stories and more information.

Mediageek headlines for 10-25-02

Mediageek headline news features stories about our communications environment that typically get relegated to the business pages of our newspapers and often don’t get reported at all in the electronic media. News on media law, regulation and industry is not just of interest to investors and stockholders – it’s important to all of us, especially if we want to have a role in changing our media environment to meet the needs of a truly democratic society.

Here’s what’s happened in our media environment this week.

More time sought for media-ownership review

Consumer groups and media labor unions want to slow down the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to rewrite broadcast-ownership rules.

The Newspaper Guild, Communications Workers of America, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Digital Democracy were among the groups asking the FCC to extend deadlines for comment and replies to proposed rule changes by at least three months.

In their request filed on Wednesday, the groups said, “This proceeding will affect every citizen and resident of the United States. More time will ideally help the public better understand the issues, find the resources to file and engage in the broad civic dialogue about media ownership this proceeding requires.”

In a press release, Jeff Chester, executive director of the center for digital democracy, said “The question here is does FCC Chairman Michael Powell really want a serious debate on this issue or not. If so, he will grant the additional time extension, release the additional research information, and hold field hearings. If he doesn’t grant this reasonable request, he clearly isn’t interested in ensuring meaningful discourse on these very serious issues.”

Under current FCC deadlines, comments are due Dec. 2; replies are due Jan. 2. FCC chairman Michael Powell has said he hopes to bring proposed changes to a vote by spring.

Wednesday’s request would change the deadlines to April and June at the earliest. The groups noted that the FCC required almost one year after formation of its Media Ownership Task Force to commission and publish key research on media ownership.

Some of the ownership rules that the FCC will be re-examining include the so-called duopoly rule, which prevents a single owner from having both a television station and newspaper in the same city, as well as limits on the ownership of radio stations in a single market, and limits on the total number of television stations a single company may own.

The FCC commissioned a series of research reports on the issue of media ownership and consolidation. These reports are available on-line at the FCC website – www.fcc.gov. Public comments can also be filed on-line at the FCC website.

And, as it turns out, not just labor and consumer groups are unhappy about the FCC’s current rulemaking deadlines. Seems that many communications lawyers are upset because the deadlines fall just after the Thanksgiving and New Years holidays. This means many highly paid communications lawyers will have to spend these holiday weekends working on comments filed on behalf of clients instead of relaxing and celebrating.

Senate Holds Up Dem FCC Nominee

In other Washington news, the Federal Communications Commission remains one Commissioner short, with just four of the five Commissioner positions filled. The bipartisan FCC currently has three Republican commissioners and just one Democrat. However, confirmation of President Bush’s Democratic nominee, Jonathan Adelstein, has only a dim chance of winning confirmation this year following the Senate’s adjournment for election campaigning last week.

Congress plans to return for a lame-duck session Nov. 12, but lawmakers aim to keep the session short and are expected to clear little time for anything beyond Iraq and brokering a government-funding deal to stave off a shutdown.

Mr. Adelstein, a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, was chosen for the post nearly a year ago. But his nomination has been ensnared as powerful Republican senators punish him for Democrats’ rejections of Bush judicial nominees for appeals-court posts. This month, the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee further infuriated Republicans by refusing to vote on the nomination of Dennis Shedd to the federal appeals court, angering his former boss, South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond.

A senator’s secret “hold” — a Senate prerogative in which neither the senator involved nor the reason for the hold is disclosed — is preventing a Senate vote on Mr. Adelstein’s nomination.

As a result, Adelstein stands little chance of taking his seat before February. Some optimists held out hope for a package of nominations, which presumably would include Adelstein, but that would require Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and GOP counterpart Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to divert attention from other priorities.

As I mentioned in the last headline story, the FCC is gearing up to decide a range of far-reaching regulatory changes that could reshape the nation’s television, newspaper and radio industries. FCC Chair Michael Powell has been a vocal critic of ownership limits, and many observers believe he plans to use the upcoming review as an opportunity to greatly relax these limits, or abolish many of them altogether.

Filling the fifth and last commission spot could weaken the hand of FCC Chairman Michael Powell, has had a 3-1 majority on most issues. Commissioners, who are appointed by the President from both parties, are responsible for deciding most major policy issues at the FCC

A second Democratic commissioner could force more compromises on changing media ownership limits. FCC chairmen seek to avoid close votes because they signal the commission is less unified behind its action and perhaps vulnerable to company lobbying or political pressure. The bigger margins also strengthen the commission’s hand when companies appeal an FCC move, as they often do.

Consumer and media democracy advocates have expressed upset that Mr. Adelstein hasn’t been able to take his seat yet. The co-director of the Consumer’s Union told the Wall Street Journal that “Keeping him off the FCC has led to a significant imbalance that tilts against traditional consumer protections and reflects an antipathy to the FCC’s traditional regulatory role. It’s dangerously out of whack.”

But even if Mr. Adelstein’s nomination clears the Senate at the beginning of next year, his term will expire in June, so he will soon have to go through the entire process all over again.

Judges Question FCC’s No Public Interest Stance
In Federal court Monday, judges appeared to take a dim view when a Federal Communications Commission attorney argued that mergers need no additional public-interest review when they comply with media-ownership limits.

Judges questioned FCC lawyer Grey Pash on the point during oral arguments in media-advocacy groups’ fight to shorten News Corp.’s two-year grace period for complying with a government order to sell either the New York Post or one of two TV stations in the New York market. The condition was imposed as part of FCC approval for News Corp.’s acquisition of the Chris-Craft Industries TV group.

Judge David Tatel said the FCC offered no evidence that it had established formal policy limits that justify the terms of how and when corporations must comply with ownership limits such as local limits on radio/TV cross-ownership. During the hearing, Judget Tatel asked the FCC, “Where do you find a policy statement by the commission that compliance with these provisions is enough to conclude that a license transfer is in the public interest?”

There appears to be no such policy in official FCC text aside from agency chairman Michael Powell’s personal statement concurring with the merger approval, Judge Harry Edwards added.

The judges’ comments, which may indicate nothing more than desire to play devil’s advocate in courtroom debate, nevertheless heartened Media Access Project president Andrew Schwartzman. After the hearing Schwartzman told reporters that “There’s a reasonable prospect for reversal.”

MAP and the United Church of Christ argued that the two-year grace period was granted arbitrarily and should have been no more than the six months typically granted for merger-divestiture orders.

News Corp. officials did not comment.

Sensenbrenner moves to kill DTV-tuner mandate

The Federal Communications Commission is under attack from House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who last week introduced legislation to eliminate the commission’s 2007 deadline for requiring digital tuners in nearly all television sets.

Calling it a “TV Tax,” Sensenbrenner said “The FCC’s mandate is comparable to requiring viewers to purchase an expensive antenna when they already have cable.”

Digtial TV tuners are estimated to cost about $250 when they become widely available. Sensenbrenner said at that price a digital-TV-tuner mandate would cost consumers in his state $140 million per year. Costs of digital-TV tuners are expected to drop, however, as demand for digital sets grows.

The FCC imposed the mandate in August to speed the adoption of digital-TV-ready sets and the phase-out of analog broadcasts.

The tuner requirement is opposed by the Consumer Electronics Association and some of its member manufacturers.

Television stations are required by Federal Law to complete the transition to digital broadcasting by 2010, at which time analog TV’s that do not have digital receivers will no longer be able to receive television broadcasts.

Although the bill was unveiled just as Congress adjourned, Sensenbrenner promised to reintroduce the legislation next year. It’s doubtful that the legislation will get much traction then, either. House Commerce and Energy Committee leaders, to whom the bill will be assigned, support the tuner mandate.

Sinclair Moves to Consolidate Local News

Media consolidation comes in many flavors. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns television stations in small, mid-size and major markets across the country, including Champaign-Urbana, just completed work on a multimillion-dollar News Central facility in its Hunt Valley, Md. Next week, Sinclair takes a major step in its ambitious plan to launch a centralized news broadcast originating from its new facility. That broadcast will air on stations in 30 of its markets that currently carry no news.

Sinclair drew national attention and widespread criticism over the past few years when it shut down its local news operations at stations in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tallahassee, Fla., and its ABC affiliate KDNL-TV in major market St. Louis. The company plans to air its new centralized news program on these stations and others that never had news programming.

The hour program will mix local, national and international news, sports and weather. Most local news segments will originate from a skeleton news staff at the local stations, while the rest of the program will come from the national feed.

Sinclair expects eventually to have local newscasts in its many markets connected to and supplemented by its News Central.

Sinclair Broadcast Group owns Central Illinois NBC affiliates WICD-TV 15 in Champaign and WICS-TV channel 20 in Springfield. Both stations currently air local news programming, but Sinclair’s new centralized news approach could appear here, too. Sinclair CEO David Smith told Broadcasting and Cable magazine that the cost associated with producing a newscast is prohibitive in many markets.

Although Sinclair will debut this news format first on its many stations that currently have no news programming, the company acknowledges that the centralcast model, with its reduced local staffing and production, is likely to move to the markets that currently have local news departments. Many Sinclair news staffers have been worried about their jobs since the company began pulling the plug on some newscasts.

WMATA/Metro Provides Free Ad Space for Anti-Gay Group
Finally, Washington DC Indymedia reports that the Washington Area Metro is providing free ad space in area train stations for an anti-gay group. Ads recently appeared in the DC/VA Metro system advertising for Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, better known as PFOX. PFOX asserts on their website that “homosexuality is preventable and treatable”, with the ads portraying a smiling woman declaring “Its My Choice to Change”. Not only do these ads promote a practice which the American Psychological Association says may be harmful to the person to be “converted,” PFOX did not have to pay for the ads. The ads were run for free by Metro as a “a public service announcement.” PFOX is apparently classified as a public charity and actually obtains funds from the United Way and the Combined Federal Campaign, a charity fundraising program for federal employees.

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