Senate Passes Bill with Media Cap Rider

As expected, the Senate today passed the $820 billion omnibus spending bill that contained the contentious 39-percent media ownership cap.

The Senate voted 65-28 to send the bill to President Bush, who is expected to sign it. Passage immediately followed a 61-32 procedural vote ending a filibuster by Democrats, who had successfully blocked the vote on Tuesday.

"It is time to move on," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

The bill effectively raises the national audience reach limit of a single broadcaster to 39 percent, down from the 45 percent lid in the FCC's revised ownership rules, but up from the old 35 percent limit, where several Democrats and a few Republicans wanted it to stay.

Bipartisan opponents of the FCC's ownership revisions led a charge against the 45-percent cap that started immediately after the rules were adopted last summer, and culminated in a bill to hold them at the previous 35-percent level. That bill was crafted, off the clock, in the days right before Congress recessed for the holidays. Four days later, Republican lawmakers got together with White House officials in the night and bumped the legislative lid up to 39 percent. Democrats were livid, and the vote on the measure, which became part of the overall spending bill, was delayed.

Both Viacom and News Corp. exceeded the 35-percent cap, and effectively challenged it in court. Each of the companies have stations that collectively reach about 39 percent of the national audience.

Reacting to the news that the 39-percent threshold would likely pass, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed lifting the lid, reportedly said, "the fix is in."

Sen. Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.), who led the vote-blocking maneuver on Tuesday, vowed to find another way to address the matter.

NAB President and CEO Edward Fritts weighed in after the bill was passed, saying, "We're pleased the national television ownership cap issue appears to be resolved by the passage of this legislation. We salute all broadcasters who worked with Congress to reach this compromise that recognizes the enduring value of free, local television stations."