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FCC Relaxes Network Ownership Rules

With today’s 3-1 decision, a company holding one of the four major broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — is now also allowed to own a smaller network such as UPN or WB. FCC officials said a rule against any of the four larger networks merging with each other will remain intact.

The move will most immediately affect Viacom, the company currently behind UPN and, after a merger last year, CBS. Viacom had argued UPN needed its financial backing to stay afloat.

With the rule change, Viacom will be allowed to remain at the helm of both networks. Under the old regulations, the company would have had to drop the 200-affiliate-strong UPN next month.

With programs like “The Hughleys” and “Moesha” on its roster, UPN is home to several shows that remain top-rated among African-American viewers.

FCC Commissioner Susan Ness said keeping UPN under Viacom’s watch will allow the network to continue serving its audience and “will help buttress the local stations that are affiliates of this network.”

But opponents of the decision, like Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education, say there’s no guarantee the FCC’s decision will benefit the public.

“This is a blow against diversity and competition that will have a very negative impact on the democratic process,” Chester told the Associated Press.

A continued easing of regulations?

Supporters of today’s decision have said they hope it could lead to a turnabout in other restrictions, including the next rule nipping at Viacom’s heels: according to current regulations, no one company can reach more than 35 percent of U.S. TV households through its broadcast holdings. With UPN and CBS, Viacom has access to 41 percent of the national audience.

So far, the issue has played out in both the FCC’s chambers, with the body ordering Viacom to drop some of its networks’ affiliate stations by next month, and the courtroom, with an appeals court suspending that requirement.

Some analysts say today’s decision paves the way for the FCC to re-examine that rule as well. The body’s next meeting is scheduled for May 10.

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