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COMPETITION AT STAKE IN FCC DECISION

Monday is D-day for the Federal Communications Commission, and the D stands for deregulation of media.

It appears that nothing will stop Chairman Michael Powell and two other Republican FCC commissioners from tossing aside decades of media ownership restrictions. They are expected to win a 3-2 vote Monday over the two Democratic FCC commissioners.

This despite opposition from a growing army of protesters made up of such unlikely allies as members of the rock band Pearl Jam and the National Rifle Association.

Organizations and individuals have sent thousands of letters to the FCC protesting the changes and asking for a postponement of the vote. Powell has ignored them.

"We're about to see the biggest change in policy since the Telecommunications Act of 1996," said Fritz J. Messere, a former FCC official now at Oswego State University.

That congressional act deregulated radio. Soon after, local ownership was gone. Today, radio is dominated by a handful of national owners, including Clear Channel Communications, which has over 1,200 stations. Buffalo has no top-rated, locally-owned commercial stations.

The FCC is expected to lift bans on a single company owning combinations of television stations, newspapers or radio stations.

For example, one company could own a newspaper and a television station in the same market. Also, one company would be able to own 45 percent of TV stations across the country, up from 35 percent. Networks will also be able to own three stations in certain markets instead of two. The FCC will also look at rules allowing a company to own up to eight radio stations in a market.

If restrictions are lifted, the winners will be the big media companies such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, Disney, Viacom, General Electric and AOL/TimeWarner. They already control 75 percent of the national television market and 90 percent of the TV news audience, according to Common Cause, a consumer group.

The loser will be the public, with less media diversity, particularly in news reporting.

"The big story is what could happen at the local level. Just look at what happened to radio news," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "There are very few locally owned radio stations and very few competing voices for news.

"Every community has important local issues, and people need diverse opinions. This kind of deregulation will be a significant step toward reducing diversity and starting us in a direction that will be hard to change."

Powell has been tight-lipped about the exact changes. "It's being done under a veil of secrecy," said Messere.

Messere is also concerned that big media companies, such as Murdoch's Fox News and Clear Channel, have become staunch supporters of the Bush Administration. Clear Channel organized rallies for America's war effort, and Murdoch's Fox News is known for its pro-administration, conservative stance.

"I find that scary," Messere said. Murdoch could benefit from deregulation in his attempt to buy DirecTV, the No. 1 U.S. satellite service with over 11 million subscribers.

Until recently, the media didn't offer much mainstream coverage of the FCC story.

"It's a complicated story to cover, filled with contradictions and paradoxes," Thompson said. Added Messere: "The media is catching up now but it's a little late."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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