Rules easing media mergers fall flat

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration won’t appeal to the Supreme Court to try to revive sweeping changes in media ownership rules thrown out by a lower court.

The Federal Communications Commission has until Monday, Jan. 31, to decide whether to appeal the ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The Justice Department, in consultation with the FCC, decided against an appeal, FCC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said Thursday.

She did not explain why or say whether the agency would try again to rewrite the rules.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who is leaving the agency in March, was at a conference in Switzerland and unavailable for comment.

The commission’s two Democratic members, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, had voted against the rule changes. Both praised the Bush administration’s decision.

"We really have to do this from scratch. It gives us an opportunity to get this right this time," Adelstein said.

The changes would have allowed a single company to own TV stations and a newspaper in the same area, and to own more TV and radio stations in a single market. Critics, including many in Congress, said that would encourage mergers and stifle diversity in news and entertainment.

"The fact is there was such broad public support for maintaining media concentration rules that it made it possible for the administration to do the right thing," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, chief executive officer of the Media Access Project, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm that led the lawsuit.

Big media companies wanted the changes and are not giving up the fight.

The National Association of Broadcasters and an official with Tribune Co. said they still plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Shaun Sheehan, Tribune’s Washington lobbyist, said the revisions are necessary because the decades-old ownership regulations hinder the companies’ ability to grow and compete in a market altered by cable television, satellite broadcasting and the internet.

But he acknowledged the odds of the Supreme Court taking the case are longer without the government’s participation.

The Republican-dominated FCC completed two years of review and voted 3-2 along party lines in 2003 to ease ownership restrictions.

Last June the appeals court blocked the changes, writing that the FCC "has not sufficiently justified its particular chosen numerical limits for local television ownership, local radio ownership, or cross-ownership of media within local markets."

Fisher said the agency could submit new rules for the court’s approval, as many critics have demanded; or it could provide new arguments to try to curry favor with the appeals court.

The FCC’s leadership is in flux, too, with Powell departing in March. President Bush’s choice to succeed as chairman will have wide sway over how the agency proceeds.

One possible replacement could be Republican commissioner Kevin Martin, who voted for the new rules in June 2003.

The appeals court ruling did not affect national limits on broadcast ownership. The FCC had raised from 35 percent to 45 percent the limits on the size of the national audience that can be reached by a single owner of TV stations. However, Congress later passed a law that established a 39 percent cap.