Broadcast lobby does an about-face

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)—in its official capacity as lobbyist for television broadcast stations—has done an about face on supporting new legislation that would reverse the FCC’s recently enacted media ownership rules.

NAB president and CEO Edward Fritts said “cold political reality” is now causing the broadcasters to abandon supporting legislation that would return the 35 percent national audience cap on TV station ownership by networks. Fritts emphasized that the NAB had not changed its mind on the ownership cap issue, but was reversing course because new legislation moving through Congress is picking up amendments that the NAB doesn’t like.

“When we looked at the political tea leaves, we believe it’s not in the cards to get a clean 35 percent bill,” Fritts said. “We have to make a political calculation.”

The NAB’s flip-flop came after the fierce response from Congress to an FCC vote on June 2 to change media ownership rules. Among the changes was an increase in the national station ownership from 35 to 45 percent of U.S. TV households. At first, the NAB supported the rollback legislation. Then, the amendments came.

Especially troublesome to the broadcasters were amendments that prevent newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership and tightened radio ownership rules that would force larger radio groups to sell off stations. The NAB had supported the cross-ownership provision of the FCC’s new rules, and oppose any rules that would force its members to sell stations.

“Through amendments in recent weeks, the Senate Commerce Committee has modified S. 1046 in numerous ways that are unacceptable to the broadcast industry,” Fritts said, in a prepared statement. “We have previously announced our opposition to that legislation. We would prefer a clean bill that would codify the national television ownership cap at 35 percent.

“However,” he continued, “in evaluating the current legislative climate, we have concluded that it is politically and legislatively infeasible. Therefore, NAB is withdrawing its support for legislation in the House and Senate.”

Because the key amendments opposed by the NAB were sponsored and supported by Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C)., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its senior Democrat, it became apparent that a "clean" bill likely would not make it to the Senate floor, Fritts said.

“We saw what happened in the Senate Commerce Committee, and that was, quite frankly, a harbinger of things to come, and those are not good things,” Fritts said, citing anti-broadcaster sentiment in Congress that will be difficult to defeat.

“The snowball is rolling down the hill, and it will be difficult to stop,” he added. “Never before has the broadcast industry had a list of challenges of this magnitude on the table at one time.”

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