WASHINGTON - Moving to quiet criticism that the Federal Communications Commission went too far in easing media ownership rules, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the agency would take steps to make broadcasters more responsive to local communities.
Powell said the FCC would form a task force to determine whether broadcasters, some of whom have been criticized for airing generic newscasts that originate in centralized studios, should be compelled to produce more local news and other programming.
Powell said the agency staff would begin a formal inquiry into rules that would promote ‘‘localism’’ at TV and radio stations.
In addition, the agency intends to accelerate the licensing of up to 1,000 lowpowered radio stations that are largely being sought by churches, schools and other nonprofit groups, Powell said at a news conference.
The initiatives were unveiled nearly a month after House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved an appropriations measure with a provision that would reverse the FCC by preventing any broadcaster from owning TV stations that reach more than 35 percent of U.S. households.
The legislation would roll back the 45 percent TV ownership cap approved by the commission on June 2.
With the Senate set next month to consider reversing many of the new media ownership rules, Powell has been under pressure to address what is threatening to become a major political embarrassment for the Bush administration.
‘‘We heard the voice of public concern about the media loud and clear,’’ Powell said.
‘‘Localism is at the core of these concerns, and we are going to tackle it head on.’’
Powell said he discussed his new initiatives with lawmakers, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, RAriz., who conducted hearings in which the revised rules were sharply criticized.
The government first adopted ownership limits a half century ago to prevent monopoly control of the media.
In 1996, Congress raised the TV ownership cap to 35 percent and required the FCC to review the regulations every two years.
The agency is supposed to drop or modify any provision found no longer to serve the public interest.
During the FCC’s latest review, Viacom, News Corp. and Tribune Co., which owns Los Angeles Times, argued that the rules needed to be overhauled so that broadcasters could compete more effectively in a market with hundreds of cable TV and satellite channels and millions of Web sites.
Administration officials have recommended that President Bush veto any bill that reverses the FCC’s easing of the ownership rules.
But an official close to the FCC and a top administration official said the President may be wary of risking political capital over the media ownership issue.
‘‘I don’t know that he wants to make this his first veto in office,’’ said the administration official.
During his news conference Wednesday, Powell said that he stood by the new ownership rules and was ‘‘not prepared to stay’’ or suspend the rules.
‘‘The rules passed in June were accurate,’’ Powell said.
‘‘But in the process we learned something. We learned about a deep-seated anxiety’’ in the United States about the media regulations.
Reaching out to the two Democratic commissioners who voted against the relaxed rules, Powell said, ‘‘I am optimistic that we will reach consensus on how the FCC can promote localism.’’ That overture didn’t resonate with one of Powell’s staunchest critics, Democrat FCC Commissioner Michael Copps.
‘‘This proposal is a day late and a dollar short,’’ Copps said in a statement released after Powell’s news conference. ‘‘We should have vetted these issues before we voted. While we study (localism) Big Media conglomerates will gobble up still more local stations.’’
Some of Powell’s Republican allies were more supportive. ‘‘Like Chairman Powell, I am committed to seeing localism and broadcasting preserved and, hopefully, even strengthened for future generations of Americans,’’ said House Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. ‘‘Billy’’ Tauzin, R-La.
Powell first discussed the initiatives Monday in Aspen, Colo., during a conference attended by technology and telecommunications leaders. Powell said Wednesday that the localism task force would hold its first meeting next month.