In a boost to the network effort to kill the TV station ownership cap, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., according to sources, is planning hearings on the matter within the next several weeks, during which he will make clear his opposition to the regulation.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., also recently confirmed their skepticism about the cap and other key media ownership regulations.
Sen. McCain’s weighing in means the major TV networks have in their corner three key leaders on Capitol Hill.
“The commission’s rules must reflect today’s world, not that of 50 years ago,” Rep. Tauzin and Rep. Upton said in a letter last month to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell. “They should recognize the growth in the number and variety of media outlets in the media marketplace as well as significant efficiencies and public service benefits that can be obtained from joint ownership.”
The cap at issue bars broadcasters from owning TV stations reaching more than 35 percent of the nation’s TV homes.
Major TV networks want to ax the cap so they can buy more stations.
But in what’s turned into a major behind-the-scenes lobbying battle in Washington, the affiliates, with the support of the National Association of Broadcasters, are fighting the deregulation in an effort to keep the networks from gaining additional leverage over stations.
Sen. McCain is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, the panel with legislative jurisdiction over the cap and the FCC.
Although the senator has made no secret of his opposition to the cap in recent years, his willingness to chair hearings on the issue now adds political momentum to the network cause.
Rep. Tauzin and Rep. Upton chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee and House telecommunications subcommittee, respectively, the panels with congressional oversight over the cap and the FCC.
Industry sources also say a series of recent court decisions are in the networks’ favor, including one in March in which a federal appeals court threw out the FCC’s cap on cable system ownership.
The same court has also stayed an FCC order requiring Viacom to divest enough of the TV stations it acquired through its CBS deal to comply with the cap, pending resolution of a network lawsuit against the cap.
At deadline, the FCC had yet to determine what to do about a controversial March 8 request by the affiliates for an investigation of alleged network abuses.
To some industry observers, the snail-like pace says the FCC is in no hurry to support the affiliates. Indeed, one rumor making the rounds late last week indicated the agency would soon reject the petition on technical grounds.
But other sources said the agency is wrestling with how to deal with the request procedurally. For instance, some agency sources are said to believe the request raises enforcement issues that could force the FCC to decide the issues raised behind the scenes, with no industry lobbying allowed.
In a May 2 letter to Mr. Powell, the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance-the umbrella group for affiliates of the Big 3 TV networks that filed the petition at the FCC-urged the agency to permit lobbying in an open proceeding.
Said Alan Frank, NASA chairman and president of Post-Newsweek Stations, “Until we hear from them, there’s no reason to be concerned. We assume they’re on track to substantively deal with the issues we raised.”