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FCC Takes Debate on the Road

Times Staff Writer

A week after their split over telephone deregulation, the Republican majority of the Federal Communications Commission showed a unified front Thursday in signaling support for the revision of broadcast ownership rules.

At a public hearing convened here, the FCC’s three Republicans remained pointed toward the relaxation of at least some of the decades-old regulations and a quick completion of the agency’s far-reaching review of media consolidation.

For their part, the two Democrats on the commission say FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, who has promised to complete the review by May, is moving too fast.

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In addition to panel speakers, the hearing drew about 50 members of the public and community activists, some of whom carried protest signs and wore homemade hats shaped like TVs or radios.

Many complained about the quality of television programming -- citing so-called reality shows -- and the use of indecent language. And they expressed worry that lifting the current rules, which limit broadcasters’ reach both nationally and in local markets, would lead to fewer choices for TV viewers and radio listeners.

“They’re putting out junk,” said Arthur Mobley, a local broadcaster.

But Powell warned the audience against turning to the government to determine what should be aired. He noted that often the TV shows attacked as low-quality earn the highest ratings. “Half of what we’re railing about is what people choose” to watch, Powell said.

At the end of the daylong session, Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, said he was impressed by the public’s strong opposition to relaxing ownership limits.

“What stood out most was the level of concern on the issue and the level of dissatisfaction,” he said.

Although most of the commissioners simply reiterated their past positions on the rules, their comments were being watched closely in light of last week’s divisive vote in which Republican Kevin J. Martin joined the FCC’s Democrats to defeat the chairman’s telephone deregulation proposal and replace it with one of their own.

Martin predicted Thursday that past friction would not affect future FCC business, noting: “Like all issues, we’re going to decide this on the merits.”

But sources inside and outside the agency say the showdown hurt Powell and Martin politically.

Powell appeared to be outmaneuvered by a fellow Republican, raising questions about whether he has the leadership skills to push through his agenda. Martin abandoned his Republican colleagues in voting against stronger deregulation, prompting one lobbyist to ask: “How many times can he do that without raising eyebrows?”

The agency is under orders from Congress and a federal court in Washington to reexamine all its media rules and toss out those it cannot justify.

Martin said he favored repealing a regulation that prevents TV stations from being co-owned with a local newspaper, as long as the local market is large enough to support several other media outlets.

Tribune Co., which owns The Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5, has lobbied to end the stand. The company isn’t blocked from owning both properties until the TV station’s next license renewal.


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