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Congress once again to tackle the tough TV issues

Three issues crucial to the future of American terrestrial broadcasting appear to be heading to a Congressional conference table, where they will be election-year pawns in a far larger game over defense department issues.

After last week’s U.S. Senate vote to tie media ownership, indecency and V-chip issues to a defense department authorization bill during the heat of the election season, the future of these broadcast policies is still uncertain.

The FCC’s new media ownership rules, already the subject of several previous votes in Congress and currently before a federal court, were repealed again last week in a Senate vote.

The rules, approved last June by a single vote majority of the Republican-controlled FCC, largely removed previous ownership restrictions on media companies. They struck down the rule that in most markets had prevented one company from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city.

In the largest markets, the new rules also enabled a company to own as many as three television stations, eight radio stations and a cable operator. And they allowed the largest television networks to buy more affiliated stations, although Congress later rolled back that provision.

The new rules have become a major issue with activist and consumer groups during the past year and have been blocked temporarily by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, which is considering a challenge.

By a voice vote, the Senate last week approved a provision to repeal the rules and restore tougher restrictions on ownership. Supporters of the effort said that the Senate’s decision provided them with a backstop in case the appeals court did not rule in their favor.

However, the legislation still faces formidable political obstacles — a similar measure was dropped from a different bill earlier this year after encountering stiff resistance from both the Bush administration and Republican leaders in the House.

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