US appeals court keeps FCC media ownership review

WASHINGTON: A federal appeals court in Philadelphia refused to give up jurisdiction over a case that could decide the fate of new relaxed media ownership rules, rejecting a request by television networks and regulators on 15 September

The US Senate approved a resolution yesterday to roll back new media ownership rules that have brought heavy criticism from a broad range of advocacy groups, shifting the fight to the House where Republican leaders pledged to kill the measure.

A White House veto threat also looms over the resolution, which the Senate approved with a 55-40 vote. The resolution seeks to undo changes to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations governing ownership of newspapers and television and radio stations.

It is believed that the changes could lead to a wave of media mergers and ultimately stifle diversity and local viewpoints in news and entertainment. The resolution is the broadest of several legislative attempts to roll back the ownership rules.

The FCC in June relaxed the regulations, allowing television networks to own more local stations and permitting cross-ownership of newspapers, television stations and radio outlets.

It sparked outcries from consumer groups who feared that the looser limits would reduce viewpoints and cut local news coverage. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit put the regulations on hold pending judicial review.

The same court on 15 September voted 2-1 against transferring the case to the appeals court in Washington which had previously ordered the FCC to better justify the rules or eliminate them. The agency came up with the new limits to address that order.

D-Mass. Rep. Ed Markey said that the House Republican leadership wants to "hide this issue from the American public and the Congress." He said that the House Democrats would try collecting the 218 signatures needed for a petition to force a vote on the media ownership resolution.

Major media companies said the changes were needed because the old regulations hindered their ability to grow and compete in a market altered by cable television, satellite broadcasting and the Internet.

Lawmakers from both parties and a broad range of groups criticised the changes, saying the new FCC regulations gave large media companies too much control over what people see, hear and read. But FCC Chairman Michael Powell said repealing the rules "would bring no clarity to media regulation, only chaos."

The White House, siding with Powell, has warned Congress that Bush would veto the measure. But the Senate's approval would send a clear signal to Bush and Powell that the Congress is staunchly opposed to loosening media ownership rules.

It could also bolster efforts in Congress to block the FCC's new rules through other legislation. Media Access Project president Andrew Jay Schwartzman said that the resolution would undo tighter restrictions on radio ownership, the one change that didn't relax regulations. Television networks, for example, would be able to own local stations that collectively reach 45 per cent of the national audience, up from 35 per cent previously.

The rules would also lift restrictions on media "cross-ownership," allowing a newspaper to own a broadcast station in the same market. Major news-media chains, including Tribune which owns The Sun, have pushed for the change. That also means that Media baron Rupert Murdoch, for example, would find it easier to extend his newspaper portfolio in the US, which currently consists of the New York Post tabloid. He would be free to buy another TV station in the nine cities where Fox already owns two - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Minneapolis, Dallas, Phoenix, Orlando and Houston.

The television networks, including News Corp's Fox and Viacom and the FCC had wanted the appeals court in Washington to review the matter since it had previously dealt with the issues.

According to Schwartzman the Philadelphia court has set oral arguments for 5 November. Several other legal challenges to the rules from broadcasters and consumer groups are also pending.

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