Senate passes bill setting national audience cap at 39 percent

So now the industry waits –at least for the moment- between rounds in the battle over national audience caps that limit what percentage of U.S. viewers a single network or station group may reach.

The Senate last week voted 65-28 to approve an omnibus spending bill with a provision to set the limit at 39 percent. The House had approved the bill in December.

The 39 percent cap is seen by some as a compromise between the previous cap of 35 percent and the 45 percent cap the FCC instituted as part of a sweeping package of media ownership rule changes in the summer after a 3-2 vote, which fell along party lines.

However, Senate approval of the bill advances the issue only slightly. The matter is still on hold while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia decides whether to uphold or overturn the FCC’s changes.

Initially, the 39 percent cap seems most important to Viacom, owner of CBS, and News Corp., which owns the Fox Television Networks. Both currently reach audiences that exceed the old 35 percent cap but fall within the new 39 percent limit. Both were operating under a waiver from the Commission that allowed them to exceed the cap. Whether or not they would be forced to divest of stations if the court rolls back the cap to 35 percent is unclear.

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