The Federal Communications Commission Monday approved a sweeping relaxation of media ownership rules.
The Republican-led Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to allow the broadcast networks to own television stations that reach a combined 45% of the national audience, up from 35%.
Many media companies have argued that existing ownership rules were outmoded on a media landscape that has been substantially altered by cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet.
Critics say the eased restrictions would likely lead to a wave of mergers landing a few giant media companies in control of even more of what the public sees, hears and reads.
The decision was a victory for FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has faced growing criticism from diverse interests opposed to his move toward deregulation.
"Our actions will advance our goals of diversity and localism," Powell said. He said the old restrictions were too outdated to survive legal challenges and the FCC "wrote rules to match the times."
The FCC said a single company can now own TV stations that reach 45% of U.S. households instead of 35%. The major networks wanted the cap eliminated, while smaller broadcasters said a higher cap would allow the networks to gobble up stations and take away local control of programming.
The agency also eased rules governing local TV ownership so one company can own two television stations in more markets and three stations in the largest cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
The FCC largely ended a ban on joint ownership of a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same city. The provision lifts all "cross-ownership" restrictions in markets with nine or more TV stations. Smaller markets would face some limits and cross-ownership would be banned in markets with three or fewer TV stations.
The FCC also took steps to prevent radio companies from dominating markets by revamping how markets are defined and left intact the maximum number of radio stations a company can own, up to eight in markets where there are 45 radio stations.
The FCC kept in place a ban on mergers among the four largest television networks - ABC owned by Walt Disney, CBS owned by Viacom, News Corp.'s Fox network and NBC, run by General Electric .
Critics fear the changes would let media giants get bigger and wield greater control over what people read, watch and hear. An unlikely alliance of groups, from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization for Women, has opposed the overhaul. The FCC has gotten an unprecedented 500,000 or so comments, mostly from critics.
"The more you dig into this order the worse things get," said Michael Copps, one of the commission's Democrats. He said the changes empowers "a new media elite" to control news and entertainment.
The rule changes are expected to face court challenges from media companies wanting more deregulation and consumer groups seeking stricter restrictions.
Public interest groups have already turned to other venues. A bill in Congress would maintain the 35% ownership cap. It has bipartisan sponsorship but faces tough sledding. And the rules are sure to be appealed in court by both sides.