Green-Light Specials

If the FCC loosens its rules, will media giants go on a radio-and-TV shopping spree? Absolutely.

For most people, late December is a time for family, friends and racking up tremendous personal debt, not for professional crises. But things didn't play out that way for Cindy Velasquez, vice president and general manager of Channel 7. A dispute between her outlet and AT&T Broadband over a proposed cable news channel resulted in dueling attack ads, the filing of a lawsuit by AT&T (it was subsequently withdrawn) and a cauldron's worth of bad blood that bubbled steadily for weeks before the disagreement was resolved on the cusp of the new year.

In a pact that AT&T spokesperson Jeannine Hansen says was finalized on January 10, the cable purveyor agreed to provide Channel 7 with space on the digital spectrum for the station's dreamed-of service, which would essentially loop its news product on a 24-hour-a-day basis. (Down the line, Channel 7 may also be permitted to launch a digi- tal Spanish-language channel.) Because -- rightly or wrongly -- Channel 7 isn't seen as having one of Denver's more powerful news operations, these ambitious expansion plans have prompted plenty of speculation among broadcasting insiders about its whys and wherefores, with one theory far outstripping the rest: McGraw-Hill, Channel 7's owner, is building up the property in order to sell it.

Velasquez dismisses this hypothesis as a "false rumor," and Ed Quinn, president of McGraw-Hill's San Diego-based broadcasting division, is even more definitive: "That's been talked about forever, and there's nothing to it." But no amount of denials is apt to entirely quell such rumblings, if only because they're being heard at a time when tremendous change for the communication industry is in the offing.

Within a few months, the five-member Federal Communications Commission is expected to modify or lift several important restrictions originally put in place to limit media consolidation. One states that a single enterprise can't own TV stations that reach more than 35 percent of the nation's viewers. Others limit the ability of firms to purchase and operate multiple TV stations in the same community and prevent an entity from holding the deeds to more than eight radio stations in a single market (Clear Channel possesses the current maximum in Denver). And that's not to mention what's known in the trade as cross-ownership. In most cases, businesses are forbidden to own TV stations, radio signals and daily newspapers in the same market -- but probably not for much longer.

The FCC has been hinting about addressing these issues since two days after 9/11, when the commission announced that it would begin reviewing cross-ownership limits and more. During the succeeding year-plus, one FCC commissioner, Michael Copps, has regularly expressed concern about the negative consequences that might occur if the rulebook is rewritten, as have organizations such as the Writers Guild of America and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. A number of prominent lawmakers have weighed in, too, with perhaps the unlikeliest being Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican senator from Texas. Hutchinson was quoted in the January 15 USA Today as saying that "encouraging local competition and preventing one company from having too much control of the content in a single media market is essential for the best interest of consumers and our country."

But voices like these are apt to be drowned out by the chorus of prominent individuals and interests certain that the time for these regulations is past. Predictably, networks and content providers such as AOL Time Warner, Fox, NBC and Viacom, all of which would profit handsomely from the dissolution of the directives, have put their brawn behind the change brigade. So, too, has FCC Chairman Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who from all appearances couldn't be any more in the industry's pocket if he'd been sewn into it at a clothing factory. On Powell's watch, the FCC ordered a dozen studies by what was dubbed the Media Ownership Working Group, with virtually all of them finding that, thanks to the Internet and other alternative news sources, the communications landscape is more diverse than ever before. By extrapolation, these conclusions imply that decrees preventing greater consolidation are simply outmoded.

That's something Dean Singleton, head of MediaNews Group, which owns the Denver Post and more than a hundred other newspapers across the country, has known in his bones for many years. In a Westword profile published before the FCC's disclosure that it would be reviewing cross-ownership ("Press for Success," August 2, 2001), Singleton predicted that the guidelines would soon undergo renovation, and he was ready to take advantage.

When these alterations didn't happen as quickly as Singleton expected, he moved ahead anyway. According to his company's Web site, www.medianewsgroup.com, KTVA-TV, a CBS affiliate in Anchorage, Alaska, was purchased "in anticipation of changes in the regulations governing ownership of newspapers, radio and television." In two Texas towns, Graham and Breckenridge, that are too small to fall under cross-ownership statutes, he's gone even further. In each burg, MediaNews owns newspapers -- most prominently the Graham Leader, which Singleton began his career competing against -- as well as a pair of radio stations that work hand in hand with the print operations.

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