39 percent cap on station ownership holds

After a long fight that spotlighted many “pork barrel” issues having nothing to do with TV station ownership, Senate Democrats have lost their fight to block passage of an omnibus spending bill that, among other things, effectively raises the limit of media ownership from its original 35 percent of U.S. homes reached to 39 percent.

U.S. Senators approved the $820 billion spending measure last week by a convincing 65-28 margin. Earlier in the day Senate Democrats had delayed the vote in the hopes of “fixing it,” in the words of Democrat Senator Tom Daschle, from South Dakota.

The Federal Communications Commission raised the original 35 percent cap last June to 45 percent, sparking a backlash in Congress and industry advocacy groups. Lawmakers and advocacy groups expressed concerns that the FCC was giving big media too much power over local stations and consumers’ rights to fair competition. Congress responded in the proposed spending bill by restoring the 35 percent limit.

But in a compromise last fall, House Republican leaders raised the limit to 39 percent as part of their version of the bill, basically accommodating Viacom’s CBS network, and News Corp.’s Fox network; which both currently reach about 39 percent of the American viewing audience.

Republican Sen. John McCain, a long-time opponent of increasing the percentage of media ownership--and one of several Republicans to vote against the bill--spent nearly an hour on the Senate floor Wednesday attacking the bill. He said the new ownership cap is exactly what CBS and Fox had lobbied for all along.

If the bill had been defeated and the original 35 percent limit reinstated, both networks would have had to sell TV stations. ABC, NBC, the WB and UPN can now buy more stations if they desire.

For more information visit www.fcc.gov.

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