Broadcast industry divided over actions in Congress

Depending on the side one believes, recent actions by Congress to roll back national ownership caps of television stations could result in the elimination of free, over-the-air TV. Or, it could help return local content to media entrusted with the public’s airwaves.

The major broadcast networks argue that they need to find new ways to raise revenue to support expensive programming, such as the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl. Only by owning more stations will they gain the financial clout to do so, they contend.

However, many local network affiliate stations and smaller owners disagree. They fear that any further accumulation in the networks’ ownership concentration would be detrimental to viewers by homogenizing entertainment, discouraging local news coverage in favor of national broadcasts, and reducing the commercial leverage of the local stations to offer independent programming.

“Our democracy is strong,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said last week, claiming his critics have overlooked the various ways the public receives information besides broadcast television. “It would be irresponsible to ignore the diversity of viewpoints provided by cable, satellite and the Internet.”

Network executives agreed, but want the FCC to relax the rules even further than the 45 percent ownership cap. The networks suggest that they may bring a lawsuit to challenge even the new rules. The networks want all caps eliminated entirely.

“NBC was disappointed, and (the) action by the House was a huge step backwards in giving broadcasters the regulatory relief needed to compete with cable,” said Shannon Jacobs, an NBC spokeswoman.

Lobbyists for the networks worked hard to defeat the House legislation. News reports said that lobbyists for News Corporation helped to circulate a one-sentence petition, endorsed by House leaders, saying that the undersigned members would vote to sustain a presidential veto. Attached to the memo was a set of policy “talking points” on the merits of the new rule that had been prepared by lobbyists from CBS’s owner, Viacom, and the Walt Disney Company, ABC's parent.

If the House bill becomes law, it could have significant repercussions for the corporate parents of the CBS and Fox broadcast networks, which own stations that reach more than 35 percent of the country. Those companies could be forced to sell stations in some of the nation’s largest and most lucrative markets. NBC owns stations that reach 34 percent of the country. ABC, which has stations that reach 24 percent of the national audience, has room to grow under a 35 percent ownership cap.

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