New FCC rules on media ownership likely to change little in Minnesotaby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has freed newspapers to buy second-tier TV stations in the country's largest markets, including the Twin Cities. But it seems unlikely the Pioneer Press or Star Tribune will pair up with a local station anytime soon.
St. Paul, Minn. — Newspapers have been struggling, as readership and ad revenue fall. And the FCC says it wants to help newspapers by relaxing rules governing their ownership of TV stations. The thinking is papers and TV stations in the same market could benefit by linking their news, advertising and other operations.
But the FCC's move faces stiff opposition. Critics fear a frenzy of media consolidation that will stifle competition. Some two dozen U.S. senators vow they'll overturn the FCC's decision. And even strong supporters of combined newspaper-TV ownership expect the matter will end up in the courts, perhaps for years.
Even if it stands, the FCC ruling isn't likely to have much effect in the Twin Cities, given the limits the FCC wants on newspaper-TV station combinations.
"The top four television stations in the market would be excluded from having any interest in a newspaper," notes Jim du Bois of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association.
Du Bois says the ownership limitation would keep the media giant Gannett from buying one of the Twin Cities newspapers. Gannett owns KARE-11 TV in the Twin Cities, as well as 22 other TV stations and 85 daily newspapers across the country.
"Clearly, Gannett is a company with tremendous newspaper holdings, including USA Today," du Bois says. "From my read of it, they would not be able to own a newspaper in this market."
Another top TV station in town, KSTP, doesn't appear interested at all in pairing up with a newspaper, even if it were possible.
"We're not buying a newspaper. And we're not selling to a newspaper," says Stanley S. Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting, which owns KSTP-TV.
Even though he isn't a buyer or seller, Hubbard objects to restrictions on newspaper-TV cross-ownership.
"In the markets where there is a lot of competition, like there is here, it doesn't make any sense at all," he says.
Hubbard says the proliferation of cable and satellite TV channels and Web sites has greatly heightened media competition. He recalls a time when the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press were part owners of WCCO.
"Did they do a bad job then? I think they did a great job then," says Hubbard. "What good did it do when they divested themselves of the ownership of a TV station? It didn't help anybody."
In the 1970s, the FCC forced an end to many newspaper-TV cross-ownership arrangements, including the one involving WCCO. But the FCC has allowed several to continue over the years. They include the Chicago Tribune's ownership of WGN-TV, a powerhouse station in the Chicago market.
In any case, the current owners of the two Twin Cities daily newspapers don't seem ready to buy TV stations. Rick Edmonds, a media industry analyst at the Poynter Institute, notes many observers expect the Star Tribune's owner will sell that paper within a few years.
Edmonds says MediaNews, which runs the Pioneer Press, doesn't have a history of owning TV stations. Perhaps with good reason. Edmonds says newspaper-TV pairings aren't the killer combinations some owners expect.
"You've sort of seen in some of the stations that are grandfathered in, that it may be modestly helpful for them to cooperate, share content and so forth. But it doesn't seem to make a huge difference for either of the businesses," says Edmonds.
The owners of the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune could not be reached for comment. The FCC rule would not leave either newspaper with an especially attractive potential TV partner in the Twin Cities. The only stations available under the FCC rule attract pretty small audiences.
Those are channels 23, 29, 41 and 45. And two of those channels are in the hands of companies that already own one of the top four stations in the market.
So, it's a good bet there won't be any newspaper-TV mergers in the Twin Cities, at least in the near future.
- All Things Considered, 12/20/2007, 5:24 p.m.