News Briefs

FCC feet to the fire: The Bush administration will hold the Federal Communications Commission to an early June deadline for rewriting regulations for media ownership. The changes will likely lift most remaining restrictions on control of radio and television stations in single markets, as well as throughout the nation.

The regulations were first loosened by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ushered in by then-vice president Al Gore, and have been further liberalized since then. Instituted long ago to insure a diversity of voices in the media, ownership caps have been opposed by large conglomerates and supported by local broadcasters. Despite public opposition to the homogenization of broadcasting brought on by softened regulations, the changes seem destined to take place. FCC Chairman Michael Powell is an avowed free-marketer and enjoys majority support on the agency's board, as well as support by most officials in the Bush administration. Lifting ownership caps "presents an important opportunity for the commission to update its rules to reflect the realities of the modern media marketplace with its unprecedented proliferation of outlets for news and information," according to Commerce secretary Don Evans. Almost equal numbers of Senators have encouraged the FCC to take more time or to stick to the June deadline. A final decision may come by June 2.

Class-action suit against News Corp.: the recent approval of an acquisition of satellite broadcaster DirecTV by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Ltd. has provoked a lawsuit by a shareholder of Fox Entertainment Group, Inc., a News Corp. subsidiary. On Friday, April 25, shareholder Norman Levin filed suit in New York, claiming that News Corp. is violating Fox's duties to its shareholders by structuring the DirecTV deal in a way that adds $4.5 billion of debt to the Fox ledger. The suit names as defendants Murdoch, executives Peter Chernin and David DeVoe, and Fox corporate directors Arthur Siskind, Lachlan Murdoch, Thomas Jones, and Peter Powers. Levin's suit was filed by the law firm of Wechsler Harwood.

Video lifts MGM bottom line: The movie studio has narrowed losses in its first fiscal quarter, thanks to surging demand for its home video products, as well as improved box office receipts. For the quarter ending March 31, MGM reported a net loss of $55.8 million, compared with a loss of $90.8 million for the same period in 2002. Revenue increased 25% to $395.2 million, compared with a year-earlier $315.1 million. On a year-over-year basis, MGM enjoyed a 25% increase in demand for its DVDs, which account for 18% of overall market share. MGM has also launched international movie channels, with its MGM Networks now in about 100 countries.

Cable television giant Comcast has announced an expansion of its HDTV retail program with Best Buy to four additional markets, including Knoxville and Nashville, TN.; Washington, DC; and Baltimore, MD. The partners have an existing program to sell HDTV cable services in Philadelphia. The arrangement available through 31 Best Buy stores will bundle digital cable-ready HDTV sets and Comcast Digital Cable service. Best Buy customers who purchase HDTV sets and agree to activate Comcast Digital Cable service can take advantage of free cable installation, two months of free HBO and ShowTime, and several Pay-Per-View movie coupons. The deal is being offered to new Comcast Digital Cable customers, including those upgrading from Comcast analog cable.

Hybrid HD/SD DVD system proposed: At the recent National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, a new hybrid standard was proposed for DVD discs that could contain both standard definition and high-definition movies, playable on next-generation red-laser machines. The pitch from technology innovator Pixonics was said to be similar to a red-laser HD DVD system called H.264 backed by Warner Bros. Studios and Philips Electronics. The discs and machines to play them could be compatible with both SD and HDTV signals, similar to dual-compatible Super Audio CD discs and players. Pixonics claims its proposal is "a cost-effective alternative to blue-laser systems for delivering HDTV movies," while offering backward compatibility for existing DVDs. Called a "pHD" digital video system, Pixonics' solution is said capable of more than 3.5 hours of playback of both standard definition and high definition video on 9GB dual-layer DVD discs. Pixonics claims its system supports playback of HD video at 1080p.