WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission wants an agency decision by year-end on whether to ease limits on how many media outlets a company may own in a single market, an FCC source said on Thursday.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is circulating a proposed schedule among the agency’s four other commissioners that would schedule the last public hearings on the issue and then a vote on December 18, the source said.
“The chairman has proposed a series of dates and overall schedule,” the source said.
Martin’s timetable raised concerns among Democrats at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday. Committee chairman Daniel Inouye, of Hawaii, said he would hold a hearing on the issue soon.
Longstanding FCC rules restrict media cross-ownership and ban ownership of a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market, unless the FCC grants a waiver.
If these limits were eased or lifted, it could help some investors such as real estate tycoon Sam Zell, who is leading a proposed leveraged buy-out of media group Tribune Co TRB.N and wants the FCC to reaffirm waivers that allow Tribune to cross-own daily newspapers and broadcast outlets in some markets.
Consumer groups and Democrats on the commission have voiced reservations about easing ownership rules, fearing further consolidation in the media industry would snuff out independent voices and degrade local news.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has called for examination of whether News Corp’s NWSa.N proposed buyout of Wall Street Journal owner Dow Jones & Co DJ.N would run afoul of ownership rules.
Martin has said previously he expected the cross-ownership ban to be lifted, but has declined to predict where limits would be drawn.
The FCC in 2003 tried to lift the common-ownership ban and permit companies to own more TV stations in a market. However, an appeals court in 2004 sent the agency back to the drawing board, ruling that the limits were not adequately justified.
At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan complained that Martin’s proposed schedule did not allow enough time for public debate and FCC deliberation.
Dorgan, of North Dakota, said the schedule “will set off a firestorm in Congress, and I’ll be carrying the wood.”