Media ownership rules could be relaxed

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The Independent Online

Rules on local media ownership could be relaxed to help news providers struggling with the recession under proposals published today by Ofcom.

Current rules prevent one company from owning more than one type of media - newspaper, radio station or TV channel - in a particular area.

Ofcom said that in the interests of maintaining a range of regional news sources, no company should be allowed to own a local paper with more than 50 per cent market share, a radio station and the ITV licence in an area, but a combination of two of these would be acceptable.

The watchdog is to hold a consultation on this proposal and on removing rules on local radio ownership so that one company could run all the commercial stations in a given area.

Research showed that listeners were happy for this to happen as long as the BBC continued to provide an alternative source of local news, Ofcom said.

The regulator's review comes after communications minister Lord Carter recommended local media ownership rules be changed in his Digital Britain report.

Despite the growth of the internet, traditional media retains its importance, with TV the main source of local news for 49 per cent of people surveyed by Ofcom, newspapers for 24 per cent and radio for 12 per cent.

Ofcom said action was needed to help broadcasters and newspapers struggling with financial pressures caused by dwindling advertising income and increasingly fragmented audiences.

Today's paper said: "Commercial radio has been particularly hard hit by falling advertising revenues and yet audiences continue to value local commercial stations for their local programming.

"The central challenge for regulation is to secure the delivery of local radio content, while at the same time ensuring a viable commercial sector able to adapt to the digital world."

A second consultation will consider proposals for creating a new three-tier structure to radio, with regional stations allowed to share programming in return for providing a version of themselves on the national digital radio network - effectively creating new national radio stations.

Local stations could be allowed to share programming in return for a greater commitment to news during the day, and Ofcom said it hoped a new tier of ultra-local community radio stations would develop in the future.

"These proposals are broadly deregulatory, and are aimed at sustaining delivery of local content, increasing choice and diversity of radio services, and ensuring an economically robust commercial sector," Ofcom said.

The consultation on cross-media ownership will close in September and the one on restructuring radio in October, with Ofcom due to make its final recommendations to the Government in November.

Any change to the ownership rules would require a change in the law.