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FCC tables discussion on media limits

Ownership issue leaves a split panel

WASHINGTON -- Crafting new rules on how many broadcast stations and newspapers one company can own won't be easy: Federal regulators can't even agree on how to get started.

The Federal Communications Commission was scheduled to discuss new rules yesterday, but the issue was pulled from the agenda at the last minute. Rules issued in 2003 were rejected by the courts.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin said there were disagreements about the kind of public input that would be sought.

''The commission was trying to move very aggressively in restarting the proceeding," Martin said. ''We'll be able to try to get something out as soon as we're able to reach any kind of compromise."

The five-member commission has an open seat and is evenly split between two Republicans and two Democrats. So anything controversial might not pass until a new commissioner is appointed.

''What happened today is the first really strong sign of what's to come until we get a third Republican commissioner in there," said Christopher Stern, an analyst at Medley Global Advisors.

Questions to be resolved before work on new rules begins include how many public hearings the commission would hold and how much money would be spent on independent studies.

Both Democrats on the panel said they would continue to press for public involvement.

''We need to make sure the public has sufficient time to comment on this incredibly complex issue," said Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

After two years of study and a contentious 3-2 vote, the commission issued sweeping new ownership rules in June 2003. The day before they were to take effect, the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia blocked them. The appeals court later rejected many of the rules, saying the FCC did not provide sufficient justification for them. It also rebuked the agency for not providing adequate time for the public to comment.

The Supreme Court last month declined to intervene.

The rules at issue would have allowed a single company to own television stations and a newspaper in the same area, and to own more TV and radio stations in a single market.

While many media companies supported the changes, the rules set off a storm of criticism from lawmakers, public interest groups, small radio stations, and others. They said the changes would lead to more media consolidation that would suppress local expression and diverse voices.

Several media companies want the ban on cross-ownership eased, which would allow more possibilities for sales and swaps of TV stations. Gannett Co., Tribune Co., and Media General Inc. all own TV stations and newspapers.

Congress overturned one rule that would have let a single company own TV stations reaching up to 45 percent of US viewers. It was scaled back to 39 percent.

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