Networks Petition FCC on Ownership Limits

Times Staff Writer

Three of the nation's top television networks urged the federal government Thursday to scrap all remaining media-ownership rules, which they said are no longer needed to spur competition among broadcasters and ensure diversity on television.

In a lengthy filing with the Federal Communications Commission, Fox Entertainment, NBC and Viacom Inc., parent of CBS, took a strong stance against the long-standing rules, citing eight privately funded studies that they said showed consolidation of television and radio stations spurs more diversity of programming and local news, not less.

"The commission can abandon the current regulatory framework in its entirety and still rest assured that its policy goals will be well-served," the media giants said. "There is no longer any public-interest need served by the commission's media ownership rules -- in fact, the rules frequently undermine rather than advance the commission's policy goals."

Consumer groups and entertainment unions hotly disputed such assertions, saying that media consolidation is putting TV news and programming into the hands of a few conglomerates.

In their own filings, groups including the Center for Digital Democracy, Writers Guild of America and Consumer Federation of America urged the FCC to strengthen media-ownership rules, which they argued are vital to the nation's democracy and freedom of speech.

"We've already winnowed it down to six big entertainment companies," said Victoria Riskin, president of the Writers Guild of America, West. "If we deregulate more, will that become three, or two or one?"

The FCC plans to decide this spring whether to modify or eliminate the rules. Thursday was the first deadline for parties to offer their comments.

(Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times, has been a leading critic of the rules.)

The TV networks took particular aim at an FCC rule that prevents a single TV broadcaster from reaching more than 35% of the national market and another that restricts how many stations one company can own in the same market.

With recent acquisitions, CBS, Fox and others are bumping up against or exceeding FCC ownership limits.

NBC, CBS and Fox offered a study by Washington-based Economists Inc. that concluded that local TV stations owned by one of the large networks provide 30% more news and public affairs programming than stations owned by smaller affiliates or independent firms, whom the rules were meant to protect.

The networks also insisted that joint ownership of multiple TV stations in the same market increases diversity of viewpoints because group owners attempt to differentiate programming in the same market so their stations don't compete for the same audience. The FCC permits joint ownership of two TV stations in the same market -- so-called duopolies -- under certain circumstances. For example, KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KCOP-TV Channel 13 in Los Angeles are owned by News Corp., parent of Fox.

Critics, however, say joint ownership of TV stations leads to consolidation of newsrooms, layoffs and the loss of independent voices in the community.

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