US regulator relaxes media ownership rules in a move which could lead to more mergers

Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), speaks during an open meeting in Washington.
Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), speaks during an open meeting in Washington. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US regulators has voted to end a decades-old rule which barred ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same market, opening the door to more consolidation in the media sector.

The Federal Communications Commission adopted the changes in a hotly contested 3-2 vote, eliminating restrictions dating back to 1975. The vote also clears the way for a single company to own multiple broadcasters in the same market.

"For too long, the commission has failed to acknowledge the pace of change in the media marketplace by maintaining analog broadcast ownership rules that do not reflect today's digital age," an FCC statement said.

"By modernising these outdated rules, broadcast stations and local newspapers will be able to more easily invest in local news and content and improve service to their local communities for the benefit of consumers."

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted against the plan.

"Today @FCC gives the green light for more media consolidation," Rosenworcel said in a tweet.

"We set on fire the values of diversity, localism, and competition that have informed media policy for decades. I dissent."

Some critics of the plan said the revisions were designed to clear a path for Sinclair Broadcast Group - which is seen as closely allied with President Donald Trump - and its planned US$3.9 billion takeover of Tribune Media, which would give it more than 200 local TV stations reaching 72 per cent of the US population.

"Chairman Pai and his Republican colleagues want us to ignore the nightmarish impact of media consolidation on local communities and once-thriving newsrooms," said Craig Aaron of the activist group Free Press.

"Today's vote will lead to more mergers, more layoffs and more communities that have no news outlets in place to cover important stories and hold officials accountable." Democratic Representative Frank Pallone said the FCC action represented "major handouts to Sinclair, putting corporate bottom lines above the public interest."

But Joe Kane of the free-market policy group R Street said the old rules are outdated.

"With the rise of cable news and the internet, these cross-ownership bans no longer make any sense," Kane said in a blog this week.

"Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO and world's richest man) was allowed to buy the Washington Post, and Facebook or Google legally could try to buy The New York Times. But a local broadcaster buying a struggling newspaper is strictly forbidden."