The Supreme Court yesterday put the incendiary issue of expanded media ownership back in the lap of the Federal Communications Commission...

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court yesterday put the incendiary issue of expanded media ownership back in the lap of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), forcing officials to take another crack at revamping their controversial rules.

Yesterday’s action means FCC commissioners will have to rewrite policies they moved to loosen in 2003 governing how many TV and radio stations companies can own. They also must better justify the rationale for easing restrictions on companies owning TV stations and newspapers in the same market.

But any new plan likely won’t be completed for at least six months and could still face legal challenges from media watchdog groups who contend ownership consolidation is reducing media diversity.

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Suffering a setback were the nation’s big news and broadcast companies. Citing technological and market changes, media conglomerates have long argued that rules are antiquated that limit station acquisitions as well as the cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations.

Media companies had sought to have the Supreme Court reinstate the less-restrictive 2003 rules after a federal appeals court in Philadelphia last year ordered the FCC to rewrite them. But the Supreme Court, without comment, declined to hear the case.

“This is another huge victory for the American public and for democracy,” said Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times and an outspoken supporter of limits on media ownership.

“If they had taken it and if they had overturned it, this would unleash the next great wave of media consolidation” with consequent loss of voices and investment in high-quality journalism, Blethen said.

He said some large media companies are pressing the FCC to focus on eliminating the ban on cross-ownership of both newspaper and television outlets in a single market. Efforts in Congress to overhaul the 1996 Telecommunications Act also could weaken ownership limits, he said.

The Supreme Court decision was not a surprise, given that the Bush administration had declined to appeal, purportedly because officials saw no major constitutional issues raised in the case.

Still, the decision will likely keep media deal makers on the sidelines by extending the climate of uncertainty that has surrounded the media ownership rules since the FCC moved to ease them.

Some media groups said the decades-old ownership limits need to be changed to let newspapers and broadcasters compete in the rapidly expanding world of cable television, satellite broadcasting and Internet markets.

“Newspapers are the fundamental source for local news. A number of television broadcast stations have started eliminating local news for economic reasons. If newspapers were allowed a foothold in the local marketplace, we don’t think that would be happening,” John Sturm, president and chief executive officer of the Newspaper Association of America, told The Associated Press.

The association was among media groups that asked the court to preserve the FCC’s new ownership rules. Appeals also were filed by the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV in Los Angeles; the National Association of Broadcasters; and Media General.

The media-ownership rules, adopted in 2003 by a 3-2 vote along commissioners’ party lines, lifted a 1975 ban on owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market. The revised rules also would have allowed a company to own two TV stations in more than 90 percent of local markets, and up to three in the biggest markets.

Yesterday’s court action means the 1975 ownership limits will continue.

Seattle Times reporter Alwyn Scott and The Associated Press contributed to this report.