Lid Loosened to 39 Percent

A bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill to limit the national audience reach of a single broadcast company to 35 percent lasted all of five days. Monday night, Senate Republican leaders and Bush administration officials agreed to raise the lid to 39 percent, which they described as a "compromise" between the 45-percent limit issued by the FCC last June and the previous cap of 35 percent. It's also the national audience reach of stations owned by Viacom and by Fox.

Last week, lawmakers from both sides of the aisles agreed on a bill to hold the line at 35-percent. That bill was attached to a much larger piece of legislation to fund government agencies through fiscal '04, which lawmakers needed to pass before they adjourned for the year. The president had long vowed to veto any effort to reinstate the 35-percent cap, but the White House was uncharacteristically quiet last week when the bipartisan group reached its decision.

Contention over audience-reach limits reached a fever pitch in recent years, as media conglomerates grew ever larger. The Congress raised the limit from 25 percent to 35 percent in the '96 Telecom Act, with the intention that it would suffice for decades. Then in 2001, shortly after Michael Powell took over as chairman of the FCC, the 35-percent cap, along with the rest of the agency's media ownership rules, was struck down by the D.C. Court of Appeals via a challenge led by Fox. When the FCC came back with a 45-percent cap last summer, a number of key legislators moved swiftly to block it.

Sen. Bryan Dorgan (D-N.D.), was one of 20 lawmakers who sponsored a congressional veto of the FCC's ruling. Dorgan was riled Tuesday after learning of the 39-percent "compromise."

"This is absurd," he said. "The White House position was well known when both the House and the Senate acted, and when the Conference Committee re-affirmed that decision and then closed that section of the bill to further action. It is galling for the White House to now march in and start dictating that those congressional decisions be changed. It is even more astounding that anyone in Congress would even consider bowing to those demands."

Sen. Fritz Hollings, (D-S.C.) scolded the press for even calling the maneuver a "compromise."

"The item was not in dispute. All had agreed to the 35-percent cap. The Republicans went into a closet, met with themselves, and announced a 'compromise,'" he said.

The NAB, up to its eyeballs lobbying for some form of digital must-carry, backed away from its hard-line call to keep the lid at 35 percent.

"NAB supports the compromise 39-percent national television ownership cap that would be written into statute under this agreement. While a 35-percent cap would have been preferable, we recognize the political realities surrounding this issue," said NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts. "NAB appreciates the efforts of all members of Congress who recognize the enduring value of free, local broadcasting."

The House is expected to vote on the bill Dec. 8, after which it will go to the Senate.