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Cross Ownership Rules for Broadcast Media and Newspapers

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Man with a newspaper in his lap holding a TV remote control

If the FCC relaxes cross ownership rules, your local newspaper could be owned by the same company as one of your local TV or radio stations.

Photo © John Foxx / Getty Images
Cross ownership rules for broadcast media and newspapers have been around since the 1970s. In the decades since, cable TV has exploded, the Internet revolutionized how news is distributed and newspapers have suffered declines in readership and revenue. That's why some say it's time for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ease these restrictions.

Cross Ownership Rules: The Beginning

Turn back the clock to 1975, the year the FCC enacted its cross ownership rules involving newspapers, plus local TV and radio stations. The government said a single media company that owned TV or radio stations in a DMA couldn't also own a newspaper.

Back then, most cities only had stations that were affiliates of the three broadcast networks, a PBS station and maybe a UHF channel. It was thought a powerful newspaper might gobble up one of the stations and control media in a particular city.

That would've meant a newspaper/tv/radio combo would be able to set advertising rates that would affect the entire market. Editorially, this conglomeration could've aligned itself politically to try to sway elections.

Companies that already owned broadcast and newspaper properties in a city in 1975 were allowed to keep them under a grandfather clause. As one example, Cox Enterprises was allowed to continue owning the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB AM-FM-TV in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cross Ownership Rules: The Media Industry Today

Today, the concern isn't about a newspaper taking over a television station to try to dominate the media voice in a city. Newspapers are simply trying to survive and are looking for lifelines anywhere they can be found.

The Newspaper Association of America is one group which hopes the FCC will change the rule. It hopes broadcast companies will rescue struggling papers by purchasing them.

A TV station owner in a city could buy the local paper, combining their operations to save money. Selling newspaper advertisements could be merged with selling TV commercials with the same sales team. A news crew could be sent to a story, shoot video for the TV newscast and the websites, while publishing both newspaper and on-air versions using the same information.

Supporters of this idea say that with more local TV stations, cable and online information providers, there should be no concern over newspaper-broadcast co-ownership. Opponents contend that it would lead to fewer companies controlling more and more media properties, similar to what happened when radio ownership rules were relaxed.

Cross Ownership Rules: The Possibilities for the Future

It's not clear when or if the FCC will ease the rules on cross ownership. If it happens, newspapers shouldn't depend on TV station ownership for instant success.

In Tampa, Florida, Media General was allowed to own The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV. In 2000, it opened its "Tampa News Center" to house both operations under one roof. Yet 12 years later, the company still chose to sell off that newspaper and dozens of others to concentrate on television and digital media.

Before the rules are changed, the FCC should consider what would happen if cross ownership reached its ultimate level. Cable TV giant Comcast already owns NBC Universal and countless cable channels.

If Microsoft decided to snatch up The Walt Disney Company, it would not only have a stranglehold on the computer software business, but own ABC, ESPN, movie studios, hundreds of radio stations and Mickey Mouse. Those kind of megadeals might be good for investors, but communities could suffer if new corporate owners are more interested in the bottom line than outstanding public service at the local level.

Some say that's already happening. So a change in the rules won't guarantee newspaper survival, but it would provide an option for the print media industry which is quickly running out of answers on how best to adapt to change.

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