A federal appeals court Wednesday blocked a change in federal rules that would have loosened restrictions on media consolidation beginning today, granting at least a temporary victory to those who argue that the new regulations would give television networks too much power and reduce local programming.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia made clear that its decision was not based on the merits of the new rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission. But the emergency stay could add to the momentum against the changes. A House committee has already voted to overturn a key part of the rules and similar action is expected in the Senate today.
The new rules would lift the ban on a newspaper buying a television station in the same city and allow a broadcast network to own a group of stations reaching 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent.
Networks such as Fox and CBS would benefit by allowing them to buy more television stations, as they typically return 25 to 50 percent profit margins. Newspaper companies such as Tribune Co. and Gannett Co. fought to lift the newspaper-television crossownership ban, saying local news is improved where newspapers and television can combine resources.
In the Valley, Gannett owns The Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV (Channel 12).
If the FCC decision is overturned, Gannett eventually would have to sell KPNX-TV.
The petition to stay the new rules was brought by the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia group that advocates community radio stations, and backed by several organizations, including the Media Access Project, a Washington advocacy group.
The stay preserves current rules while the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia is briefed on the new rules and conducts its own review, which will take an undetermined amount of time.
It is the most recent in a summer full of political blows to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has worked for the past two years to craft new ownership rules that he and his Republican colleagues believe keep up with a rapidly changing media landscape.
Powell’s Democratic FCC colleagues, as well as a bipartisan group of lawmakers and a broad coalition of advocacy groups, disagree and have sought to roll back the rules. "While we are disappointed by the decision by the court to stay the new rules, we will continue to vigorously defend them and look forward to a decision by the court on the merits,’’ an FCC spokesman said.
In granting the stay, the three-judge panel wrote: ‘‘The harm to petitioners absent a stay would be the likely loss of an adequate remedy should the new ownership rules be declared invalid in whole or in part. In contrast to this irreparable harm, there is little indication that a stay pending appeal will result in substantial harm to the commission or other interested parties.’’
The Prometheus Radio Project filed the motion to stay in several jurisdictions, hoping to avoid the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which last year told the FCC that its ownership rules must be justified or relaxed. When a motion is filed in more than one jurisdiction in a national case, a lottery to determine venue is held; Philadelphia won the lottery.