Kevin Martin: Savvy Political Operator. Less Savvy When It Comes To Policy

Posted by: Jon Fine on November 13, 2007

When he was running the FCC, Michael Powell did not lack for grand plans to deregulate most of everything. He did not succeed in doing so. But his successor, Kevin Martin, has learned something Powell never did: that compromise helps your agenda move from the theoretical to the real.

Neatly tucked into Martin’s (too long!) op-ed piece in today’s New York Times concerning his longtime hobbyhorse—lifting the regulations that disallow newspapers from owning broadcast or radio stations in the same market—is his big concession:

A company that owns a newspaper in one of the 20 largest cities in the country should be permitted to purchase a broadcast TV or radio station in the same market. But a newspaper should be prohibited from buying one of the top four TV stations in its community. In addition, each part of the combined entity would need to maintain its editorial independence.

That last sentence scans to me as unenforceable and thus meaningless, but, whatever. Overall, this is neat and nicely-nuanced argument. Because it is in the larger markets that the newspapers have been hit hardest. It also avoids accusations that a Clear Channel-ization of local media will happen; Martin had the political smarts to avoid those landmines.

He also learned something about timing and context. His push to deregulate newspapers comes after an out-of-nowhere leak to the New York Times (how about that!) last Saturday about how Martin is eying re-regulating cable. (For more on how there is a high bar for this to actually happen, see Craig Moffett’s comments, among others, here. Also see this.)

But, in any event, perception sort of granted: no radical deregulator is Kevin Martin!

And then it turns out that deregulation isn’t the point. The one thing about Martin’s argument concerning newspapers is that it’s broadly based on an assumption, that is, that companies can somehow extract significant synergy or value from owning newspapers and/or TV and/or radio (UPDATE 11/14: make that “a newspaper and a TV station or a radio station”) in the same market.

I don’t believe they can, and the track record on it is not particularly inspiring.

It’s worth noting that Tribune has had a broadcast/radio/newspaper combination in Chicago forever, with WGN and the Chicago Tribune. This fact hasn’t exactly protected the Chicago Tribune from going through a couple of rounds of layoffs in the past few years.

And, god knows, no one has figured out to manage to make cross-media synergy work on any decent scale at any media conglomerate.

Why does Kevin Martin—or anyone, for that matter—think that someone might all of a sudden figure this out now?

UPDATE: Never mind what Martin offers—Gannett wants more! The company just released the following statement, which appeared in my inbox minutes after I finished the preceding:

Gannett agrees the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban must be changed, but today’s proposed rule is far too limited and does not reflect the realities of the marketplace.

It’s worth noting that limiting the rule change to the top 20 markets significantly limits the bang Gannett—which primarily owns newspapers in mid-sized and smaller markets—might get out of it.

Reader Comments

Don

November 14, 2007 10:50 AM

I cannot remember the FCC regulation that disallowed newspapers from owning TV stations. Can you refresh my memory? I thought the rule was a purposely vague 45% of the total media in a market.

In Washington, DC the Washington Star Newspaper bid on and won the FCC license for Channel 7, WTVW, later WMAL in 1947. The Star owned that station until 1976 if memory serves correct.

The Washington Post flirted with Washington Post radio last year and it was literally as bad if not worse than college radio. These writers had no ability to host a show.

I agree though that no one was a worse Commissioner in recent memory than Michael Powell.

Jon Fine

November 14, 2007 11:05 AM

Don:
Newspaper cross-ownership was not banned until 1975, and some existing examples were grandfathered in. Quick primer:
http://www.naa.org/Resources/Articles/Public-Policy-History-of-the-Media-Cross-Ownership-Ban/Public-Policy-History-of-the-Media-Cross-Ownership-Ban.aspx

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