Ownership Rules Face New Attacks

The fight over the FCC’s June 2 media ownership order may get hotter before it cools down, as the House followed the Senate with its own bipartisan rebuke of a key piece of FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s most significant policy action to date.

In a 40-25 vote July 16, the House Appropriations Committee voted to prohibit the FCC from using its funds to implement the order raising the nationwide ownership cap from 35 percent to 45 percent. That effectively negates the increase by preventing the commission from approving acquisitions enabled by the order.

The vote bypasses the House Commerce Committee, where Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) had vowed to stand by the FCC and block legislation to undo the FCC order. The Appropriations Committee Action keeps the issue alive, prolonging the possibility of setting up House Republicans and even President Bush for the tough position of stopping an anti-FCC movement whose momentum has surprised even some FCC critics.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group led by Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), gained enough support to bring a floor vote on a legislative veto over the entire FCC package.

But the fate of either action is in doubt and NAB is not supporting either rollback attempt. The Senate action sweeps broadly, threatening to reverse NAB victories such as the relaxed newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules. The House action, according to NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, is also unlikely to emerge as the “clean” nationwide ownership rollback the group wants.

“The potential for mischief here is enormous,” Wharton said, citing attempts already made to tack on measures the NAB opposes. “Should by some chance this emerge only as a 35 percent rollback bill, we would obviously enthusiastically support that bill.”

Over at the commission, Democrats, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein made a motion to stay and reconsider the entire FCC action. Adelstein is also attempting to reverse a provision of the rules he said would classify certain small cities around the nation as having much larger media marketplaces than they really do.

Adelstein noted, for example, that Sioux Falls, S.D., has six separate noncommercial stations under the new rules, even though five of the six are run by the statewide public TV network and broadcast identical programming. So the city, according the FCC’s counting method, has 11 stations in all—well above the threshold of nine stations that allows a broad menu of merger and consolidation.

“So Sioux Falls, the 112th largest DMA by population, is counted as having 11 stations, or more than Detroit, Mich., the 10th largest DMA,” Adelstein said. “Inadvertent errors like this one are why Commissioner Copps and I fought so hard for public comment. Had the FCC sought public input on the specific changes, somebody would have alerted us to this anomaly and correct this mistake before any mergers are proposed to us.”