Senate Commerce Committee revamps FCC policies in reauthorization bill

A week after reversing a controversial FCC ruling that loosened media ownership rules, the Senate Commerce Committee has passed a bill that imposes new rules on the commission itself.

Senators on the oversight committee modified the FCC reauthorization bill to change the FCC’s currently mandated two-year review of media-ownership rules to four years. They also voted to eliminate the highly controversial 50 percent UHF discount rule.

The UHF rule became an issue in the June 2 media ownership vote. The FCC’s Republican majority kept an old formula that only counts half the homes in a market against the total for UHF stations. This was a holdover from the days before cable and satellite, when many viewers found it difficult to receive weak UHF signals. Critics had charged, however, that it allowed networks to use the formula to artificially exceed stated national ownership caps of broadcast stations.

In other fallout from the ownership vote, the committee also voted to ban industries and private groups from paying for FCC officials to attend trade shows and conferences. Last month, the Center for Public Integrity in Washington found that FCC members and their staff have received more than 2,500 trips costing some $2.8 million since 1995 paid for by the industries which are regulated by the agency.

The law also added a new prohibition on FCC staff lobbying. FCC division chiefs are barred from lobbying the agency for one year after their departure.

Finally, the legislation directs the FCC to take a tougher stand against indecency on radio and television. The measures would require the FCC to hold a hearing on whether to revoke a station’s license whenever indecency rules are violated. It would boost fines to $2.5 million for broadcasters and up to $10 million for telecommunications companies.

“The commission has long sought this enforcement ability (of bigger fines) to ensure communications providers do not accept commission fines as a cost of doing business. This is especially true in the area of indecent broadcasts,” said Sen. John McCain, chairman of the committee.

The commission was also given the power to tighten media ownership limits and to cancel wireless licenses due to nonpayment. Bidders at FCC auctions will no longer be able to avoid paying debts due to bankruptcy laws.

Sen. McCain said he would hold another hearing in July to address several issues involving localism in broadcasting. As a result, several amendments were dropped from consideration in the reauthorization bill and will be considered at the next hearing.

Now that the committee has approved the legislation, it goes to the full Senate for final consideration.

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