FCC Puts Off Work on Media Ownership Rules

Federal regulators on Thursday delayed the start of work on new, widely-awaited rules to loosen decades-old limits on how many broadcast stations and newspapers a company can own.

The Federal Communications Commission was slated to discuss the rules at its monthly public meeting, but pulled the issue from its agenda at the last minute.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said there were disagreements among the agency's four commissioners about the kind of public input that would be sought in crafting new rules.

Some of the questions to be resolved include how many public hearings the commission would hold and how much money would be spent on independent studies.

"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."

He did not provide ay timetable as to when commissioners would revisit the issue.

A federal appeals court rejected the agency's first set of media ownership rules, issued in June 2003. At that time, then-commissioner Martin joined the two other Republicans on the panel in approving rules easing ownership limits.

While many media companies supported the changes, the rules set off a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers in both parties as well as 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.

The day before the rules were to take effect, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) in Philadelphia blocked them. The court later rejected most of the rules, saying the FCC did not provide sufficient justification for revamping the current restrictions.

Broadcast and newspaper groups appealed, but 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.

The attorney who led the lawsuit to overturn the rules says the status quo should remain.

"We think we have the best system of broadcasting in the world because of, not in spite of, rules that have protected diversity in the media and we don't want to change that," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and chief executive officer of Media Access Project.

Larger media companies have argued that the current restrictions are old and hinder their ability to grow and compete in a market changed by cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet.