What can we own?

MEDIA COMPANIES IN THIS COUNTRY face unreasonable government restrictions on their activities. Yet for the Federal Communications Commission, rewriting the ownership limits for television and radio stations has been a labor fit for Sisyphus. The commission updates the rules every few years, as required by law, only to have a federal appeals court or Congress smack them down.

The latest go-round started when the commission announced in June that it would reconsider some of its rules limiting what companies can own. The FCC had tried to ease or eliminate these limits in 2003, only to have its actions blocked by the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senate, prodded by a motley alliance of anti-corporate zealots and conservative activists who think local media tycoons are less liberal than national media tycoons, also intervened.

Media ownership restraints seek to preserve a healthy competition of distinct voices, but the rules developed over the decades are woefully outdated. If anything, what the FCC tried to do three years ago was too modest. In an age of cable and satellite TV -- not to mention an age of -- it’s no longer justifiable for the government to impose any limits on how many affiliates broadcast networks can own, given that CBS, NBC and ABC no longer control the distribution of their programming the way they did when American families gathered around their sets to watch “I Love Lucy,” captured by their rabbit-ear antennas.

And yet the FCC only sought to raise the percentage of the national audience that network-owned affiliates can reach from 35% to 45%. This would have been a radical move -- in 1960. Three years ago, it was laughably meek. After a compromise raised the limit to 39%, these rules aren’t even on the table for review this time around.


A different set of rules limiting the number of media outlets one company can own within the same city do remain relevant. Here again, the FCC was rather prudent in its ill-fated 2003 ruling. The commission would have let TV groups control three stations in markets with at least 18 outlets, and two stations in markets with five to 17 outlets -- although only one of the stations could be among the four most popular in that community. It also proposed to allow TV, radio and newspaper owners in a community to consolidate to varying degrees, depending on the number of TV stations in the market.

Full disclosure: Tribune Co., owner of this newspaper and KTLA-TV Channel 5, would benefit from a relaxation of these rules. Indeed, its purchase of The Times in 2000 was allowed because of the widespread assumption that the so-called cross-ownership rule banning ownership of a broadcast station and newspaper in the same city would soon be retired, as it should be.

More cities might still have a competitive newspaper market if more broadcasters had been allowed to buy newspapers in the past. Studies show that those broadcasters that do operate local newspapers through waivers or exemptions offer more news and public affairs programs, on average, than competitors that don’t. Moreover, the business challenges facing media giants such as Tribune and Time Warner Inc., which had hoped for greater “synergy” dividends, underscore the ever-changing media landscape and the fact that Americans have a growing number of media choices. The number of people who regularly watch local TV news is down from 77% in 1993 to 54% today. It’s in their interest that the FCC press ahead with liberalization.