Senate Commerce Committee threatens to undo new FCC ownership rules

Last week’s 3-2 split FCC vote on media ownership rules was supposed to settle one of the most contentious broadcasting issue in years. However, by midweek a majority of the Senate Commerce Committee indicated they will try to amend or overturn the FCC’s changes.

Chairman John McCain, (R-Ariz.), said his committee will consider the issue during the month of June. “I have a long voting record in support of deregulation,” McCain said. “But the business of media ownership, which can have such an immense effect on the nature and quality of our democracy, is too important to be dealt with so categorically.”

The FCC voted 3-2 last Monday to ease rules governing the cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations. They also voted to change the national TV ownership limit so a company can reach 45 percent of the U.S. households instead of 35 percent.

The changes would allow, for the first time in nearly 30 years, a company to own a newspaper and a television station in the same city. They would also raise limits on the size of broadcast television networks. The networks would be able to own stations that reach 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent.

During a three-hour hearing last week in which all five FCC members participated, many senators — Republicans and Democrats alike — expressed disapproval of the FCC’s action.

“Where in the world do you find the grounds for 45 percent?” asked Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) to Powell on the ownership cap. The South Carolina senator charged that the FCC chairman has been engaged in “spin and fraud” in his defense of deregulation and the FCC has become “an instrument of corporate greed.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, (R-Texas), said lifting the newspaper-broadcast joint ownership ban was an “alarming development.”

“It looks for all the world like you could not or would not stand up to corporate interests,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). The senator expressed concern about the newspaper-television cross-ownership rule, which would allow common ownership of newspapers and television stations in all but about 30 of the nation's smallest cities.

But Sen. John Breaux, (D-La.), defended the FCC saying ,“I'm probably the only person that congratulates the FCC for acting. We may not like the product, but without some action by the FCC there would be no ownership restrictions at all,” he said referring to the potential for court challenges to sweep away the rules.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) introduced a bill to put the cap back at 35 percent. Fellow Republican senators and committee colleagues Hutchinson, Conrad Burns (Mont.), Trent Lott (Miss.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) indicated they would join 10 Democratic committee members in supporting the bill. Only Breaux is undecided. Sen. Dorgan indicated that he might offer an amendment to Stevens's bill that would reinstate the ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast properties.

Although Chairman McCain said he did not support the bill, he will allow the committee to hold a hearing on the legislation soon. McCain said he would put language in the bill to clarify that the FCC should have the authority to strengthen as well as relax ownership restrictions if that serves the public interest.

Legislation to repeal the FCC action was not given as good a chance passing the House of Representatives, where McCain's counterpart, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), strongly supports for the FCC's actions.

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