Wednesday, June 19, 2013

FCC chair nominee punts on Belo deal questions

At a U.S. Senate hearing yesterday, President Obama's nominee to lead the Federal Communications Commission declined to comment on whether Gannett and other companies were skirting FCC regulations on ownership of multiple media outlets in the same market.

The nominee, Tom Wheeler, was responding to remarks by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who criticized GCI over its proposal to buy 20 Belo stations, including three in Washington State, according to trade publication Broadcasting & Cable.

FCC local market caps prevent GCI from retaining ownership of Belo stations in five markets where it already owns a station or a newspaper. Those will be spun off to a new, third company led by former Belo executive Jack Sander. GCI has said it will provide some back office services for the Sander stations. And GCI will help the company, Sander Holdings Co., with financing needed to buy the five stations, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing yesterday.

The $2.2 billion Belo deal announced last week can't proceed without an OK from the FCC and other regulatory agencies.

At the hearing, Wheeler, 67, said he understood the seriousness of the issue, and said he's been a longtime advocate of diversity of voices. He said the FCC has asked the General Accounting Office to study the issue and he "looked forward to their opinion," Broadcasting & Cable says.

He said the key is for the commission to look at competition, localism and diversity as the touchstones, not business plans. He declined to comment on whether some broadcasters could abuse shared service agreements to get around the rules. "I am not informed enough to be explicit on that," he said, "but I am going to be."

Obama nominated Wheeler, a telecom investor, on May 1.

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