Industry braces for power shift

May 28, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The historic power shift in the Senate to Democratic control will have sweeping implications for the television industry, putting broadcasters on the defensive over explicit content and potentially slowing efforts to relax ownership restrictions.
Vermont Sen. James Jeffords’ decision last Thursday to leave the GOP and become an independent means that Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., will replace Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, a change many broadcasters consider a setback.
“Obviously Hollings is not a deregulator in any sense,” said an industry source. “Hollings has indicated right down the line he’s not interested in any deregulation of these [ownership] rules.”
Already up in the air are hearings Sen. McCain had scheduled for mid-June on media ownership, sports programming and television violence. Sources expect the hearing on TV violence to take place at some point, given Sen. Hollings’ interest in the issue.
Sen. Hollings is likely to beef up efforts to pass his safe-harbor bill, which requires broadcast and cable channels to run shows with violent images during late-night hours, when presumably fewer kids are watching.
The television industry strongly opposes the bill, insisting it violates the First Amendment rights of programmers.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who will replace Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., as Senate majority leader, said campaign finance reform will be a top priority.
That’s of concern to broadcasters because the Senate passed a campaign finance measure earlier this year that requires television stations to offer politicians rock-bottom rates for political ads.
Noting that Sen. Lott has promised to send the bill to the House, Sen. Daschle told reporters last Thursday, “If it hasn’t been done when I become majority leader, this is one of the first things I’ll do.”
The changing of the guard at the Senate Commerce Committee is the biggest concern for the industry.
Sen. McCain sometimes squabbles with media companies, but he’s generally deregulatory minded and favors increasing the broadcast ownership cap to 50 percent and eliminating the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule.
By contrast, Sen. Hollings wants to keep the 35 percent cap and retain the newspaper-broadcast restrictions, which prevent one entity from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market.
The Federal Communications Commission has made a few exceptions to its newspaper cross-ownership restrictions over the years and will re-evaluate them this summer as part of a larger review of its ownership regulations.
Some sources think Sen. Hollings will put pressure on the FCC to drop or scale back the review. But the battle over broadcast ownership regulations is also being played out in the courts, outside the senator’s jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, broadcasters will find themselves playing a lot more defense on content issues as Sen. Hollings gets a new crack at advancing his safe harbor bill.
The senator told Electronic Media a few months ago he was urging Sen. McCain to hold hearings on his measure this year. Now Sen. Hollings can schedule his own hearings.
Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, already an outspoken critic of TV sex and violence, may draw more attention to his criticisms of Hollywood and the major TV networks because he’ll be in the majority party and in a better position to move his legislation.
The senator has urged broadcasters to adopt a code of conduct aimed at reducing the level of sex and violence on TV and restoring a family hour to prime time. Broadcasters oppose the idea, arguing the government shouldn’t be dictating what content is appropriate.
The Connecticut lawmaker recently introduced legislation that gives the Federal Trade Commission authority to crack down on Hollywood studios, record companies and video game manufacturers who market violent content to kids.
Democratic control could hurt the Tauzin-Dingell bill, which deregulates the Baby Bell phone companies so they can better compete with cable in the broadband business. The bill has always been a long shot in the Senate, but GOP leaders had at least promised Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., a co-author, that the measure would be debated if and when it reaches the chamber.
That may change because Sen. Hollings is no fan of the Bells and could easily stall the legislation by refusing to schedule a vote on it before his panel.
On a positive note for the industry, rural broadcasters could benefit from the rise of Sen. Daschle to majority leader because the lawmaker supports rural interests. There’s already speculation that Sen. Daschle might boost the efforts of Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to pass a bill that provides tax credits to companies that offer broadband in rural areas.
In other developments:
* Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., are vying to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee, now headed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The panel has held hearings on copyright issues, programming content, antitrust concerns, cameras in courtrooms and broadband in recent years. Sen. Leahy supports rural interests and has backed an antitrust exemption for the entertainment industry to develop codes of conduct.
* Sen. Tom DeWine, R-Ohio, head of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, will likely be replaced by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., but little may change, because Sen. DeWine and Sen. Kohl usually move in lockstep. The panel regularly examines the state of competition in the broadband and cable businesses.
* The identity of the new chairman of the Senate communications subcommittee, now headed by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., is less certain. Sources said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Rockefeller could all be contenders.
The Senate has been evenly divided 50-50 this session with Vice President Dick Cheney casting any tie-breaking votes in favor of the GOP. With the defection of Sen. Jeffords, the chamber will have 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent-the Vermont senator-who will vote with the Democrats to give them a majority.
Sen. Jeffords said last week that he won’t formally change his party affiliation until after Congress has completed action on President George W. Bush’s tax cut bill.
That could occur very soon, but Democratic sources expect the shift in power to take place June 5.