WASHINGTON — Federal regulators are poised to ease ownership restrictions on major-market media outlets in what could be a boost to some big players in the struggling newspaper industry.
After two failed attempts to loosen its rules, the Federal Communications Commission is expected by the end of the year to approve a new proposal that would allow newspapers and television or radio stations in the 20 largest markets to consolidate.
And unlike previous battles, there is little opposition this time to easing the so-called cross-ownership rules.
A decade of Internet growth, fast-changing technologies and plunging newspaper revenues – along with the nation’s focus on recovering from the Great Recession – has altered views. Few people seem to care much if newspapers and television stations hook up in the same metropolitan area.
That could be a boon for a handful of firms, including Los Angeles Times parent Tribune Co., as well as a relief for the FCC, which is trying for a third time in 10 years to loosen rules that limit media consolidation.
The less-contentious atmosphere stems partly from the decision of some key media companies to sever their broadcast businesses from their lower-valued newspaper units.
“It ought to be … a huge issue,” former FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said. “Big media wanted us to believe the age of media consolidation was over, but not so.”
Copps opposed loosening the rules in 2003 and 2007, and now heads a Common Cause effort to highlight the problems of media consolidation.
He pointed to Comcast Corp.’s takeover of NBC Universal last year, and Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc.’s purchase this year of seven TV stations from Four Points Media.
Media companies said easing the cross-ownership ban would help newspapers and broadcast stations save money by sharing resources and opening new avenues for potential sales.
“The ownership rules that govern broadcasting come to us from the ‘I Love Lucy’ era,” said Gordon Smith, head of the National Association of Broadcasters. “The realities of today’s communications market simply cry out for a dramatic loosing of these rules. If we want to end up with just the Internet being the source of news, that’s the country we’re heading for. I think that’s a huge mistake.”
Paul Boyle, senior vice president for public policy at the Newspaper Association of America, said the rules make it difficult for investors who have as little as a 5 percent ownership in a broadcast company to buy a newspaper in the same market.
The long-standing cross-ownership limits have been a hindrance to sales of newspaper companies, and looser restrictions would make it easier for broadcasters to make such purchases, said Justin Nielson, an analyst at media consultant SNL Kagan.
But that might not be enough for some troubled newspapers, he said.
“There are synergies in terms of owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market, although it seems like in most cases, there isn’t a huge advantage because newspaper advertising has been in decline,” Nielson said.
Since peaking at $47.4 billion in 2005, newspaper print advertising revenues plunged 56 percent to $20.7 billion last year, according to the newspaper trade group. And ad revenue from newspaper websites hasn’t made up much of the difference, totaling just $3.2 billion last year.
The Diversity and Competition Supporters, a coalition of 50 public interest groups, cited “the diminished state of print journalism” in saying it would not oppose a relaxation of cross-ownership rules as long as that would not impede minority ownership of broadcast stations.
As they stand, the rules generally prohibit major newspapers from merging with major television and radio stations in the same metropolitan market.
Attempts to loosen the rules previously stirred protests, angry public hearings and a congressional backlash. In both cases, a federal court tossed out the revisions on technical grounds and sent the FCC back to the drawing board.
This time, the FCC staff has proposed easing the rules in the top 20 markets – a proposal similar to the one the FCC approved in 2007 in a bitter 3-2 vote under Republican Chairman Kevin Martin.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, declined to comment, but a majority of the five FCC commissioners appear to support the rule change.
“There have been significant market changes, which everyone has to be recognizing at this point,” FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell said.
McDowell, a Republican, is the only current commissioner who was on the panel in 2007.