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Station cap’s days are numbered, FCC’s Powell says

Apr 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

If the courts don’t kill the national TV ownership cap, the Federal Communications Commission probably will.
At least that was the message FCC Chairman Michael Powell had last week for the National Association of Broadcasters convention.
“I make no secret that I am skeptical, generally … of these straight prophylactic prohibitions on ownership or reach,” said Mr. Powell.
The cap at issue bars broadcasters from reaching more than 35 percent of the nation’s TV homes. It has the strong support of the nation’s network TV affiliates and the NAB.
But the major TV networks want to ax the regulation-and CBS, Fox Broadcasting Co. and NBC have all bailed out of NAB because the organization is lobbying for the regulation.
Despite NAB’s druthers on the issue, Mr. Powell told the group’s convention that he believes the cap is vulnerable on a variety of grounds, including as an encroachment of First Amendment rights.
“The cap says you can’t talk to any more than 35 percent of the national audience,” Mr. Powell said. “There is something somewhat offensive to the First Amendment about that sort of limitation,” he continued.
Said Ben Tucker, chairman of the NAB TV board and president of Fisher Broadcasting: “The way he framed the issue, we have a real uphill battle to convince him that the cap is important.”
Mr. Powell also said the FCC would wait to act on the cap until after a federal appeals court rules on a pending network challenge to the caps. A ruling in the case is not expected until late this year.
According to Mr. Powell, the court’s recent stay of a condition that Viacom divest enough stations to comply with the cap pending resolution of the lawsuit is viewed by many as a “grave sign for the life of the rule.” That’s the case in part, Mr. Powell said, because the court only issues stays when it believes the rule is likely to be ejected.
“[The court] has made already some judgment that there is a likelihood that [the networks] will prevail on the merits,” Mr. Powell said.
Among the key arguments for the cap is that it is needed to ensure diversity in media ownership.
But Mr. Powell said some theories hold that concentration can spur greater diversity of programming for the public.
“I believe pretty strongly in diversity,” Mr. Powell said. “I just reject the idea that the only way you get it is by government fiat.”
In hopes of encouraging the rollout of digital television, the NAB has also been urging the FCC to adopt a rule requiring all new TV sets to include tuners capable of receiving analog and digital signals.
But Mr. Powell told reporters he had “serious questions” about the legal rationale NAB has been advancing for a rule.
In other key developments at the convention:
Eddie Fritts, NAB president and CEO, finally broke his silence about the impact that he believes the TV network bailouts will have on the organization’s lobbying clout. “We never like to lose a member, large or small, but we are neither diminished nor demoralized,” said Mr. Fritts in a speech during the convention’s opening session. “I can say with absolute confidence that we have the means and the members to continue the fight,” he continued. Still, the NAB executive publicly praised ABC-the association’s only remaining major TV network member-for sticking around. “We value your standing side by side with us in spite of your disagreement on the issue of the 35 percent ownership cap,” Mr. Fritts said.
In his keynote address to the NAB, Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, blasted what he characterized as an “epidemic” of political correctness on the nation’s college campuses. “You would expect institutions of learning to be the place where freedom to speak would be most hospitably received and persistently revered,” he said. “If you thought that, you would be wrong. Too many college presidents and administrators sit by mute, fearful, hesitant, even approving as they watch the slow undoing of Americans’ most precious right by young students who damn well should know better.”
“I want to stand with all other Americans who believe it is their solemn duty to preserve, protect and defend 45 simple words, to lay claim for generations of Americans yet unborn that the First Amendment means for them what it means for us, the rostrum from which springs the ornaments and the essentials of this free and loving land. May God save the First Amendment.”
Mr. Valenti’s remarks come as federal lawmakers consider legislation aimed at restricting the ability of entertainment companies to market adult-rated material to children.