Hollings vs. FCC in TV ownership rules battle

Jun 25, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., a longtime critic of media concentration, will hold hearings in July on broadcast ownership, setting the stage for a likely battle with the GOP-controlled Federal Communications Commission as it prepares to review its ownership rules with an eye toward relaxing some of them.
The senator will wade into the issue with the television industry still divided over whether to increase the existing ownership cap. The rule bars broadcasters from owning stations reaching more than 35 percent of TV households nationwide.
The hearings, which have yet to be formally announced, are planned for the first half of July. The Senate will be in recess from June 30 to July 8 for the Independence Day holiday.
Meanwhile, Sen. Hollings, the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which regulates the communications sector, has other surprises in store for the television industry.
During an impromptu interview last week on Capitol Hill, he vowed to step up efforts to pass his so-called safe harbor legislation.
The measure forces broadcast and cable networks to relegate violent content to late-night hours, when presumably fewer kids are watching. It is strongly opposed by programmers, who say it amounts to government control of their content.
“It’s still the top priority, and we’ll definitely move it,” Sen. Hollings said.
The regulatory-minded Sen. Hollings replaced Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as head of Senate Commerce earlier this month when the Democrats took control of the chamber.
The junior senator from South Carolina has advocated maintaining the 35 percent station cap and the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership restrictions, which prohibit entities from owning both papers and television or radio stations in the same market. The FCC has granted occasional cross-ownership waivers.
For years, some broadcasters, including Tribune Co., have been fighting to repeal the newspaper-broadcast restrictions on the grounds the rules are antiquated.
Sen. Hollings has said all these regulations are needed to promote diversity in media voices.
The planned ownership hearings could lead to a showdown with FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican who has hinted at relaxing or eliminating some of the rules if they’re no longer justified. The agency will begin its comprehensive review this summer or in early fall.
During the interview, Sen. Hollings said the ownership hearings will pick up where Sen. McCain left off when the Arizona lawmaker was suddenly forced to relinquish control of the panel.
“I’ve been trying my best to keep on course the hearings that he’s set up and everything like that,” Sen. Hollings said.
Sen. McCain had planned to hold hearings on program access, media violence and ownership in mid-June but never had the chance.
Also last week, Sen. Hollings said he opposes the controversial Tauzin-Dingell broadband bill, which lifts restrictions on Baby Bell provision of high-speed Internet access so the phone companies can better compete against cable broadband providers. He called the measure an end-run around existing restrictions imposed on the Bells.
Nevertheless, he said, if the bill passes the House, he’ll consider it before his committee.
“We wouldn’t block anybody’s consideration. If the bill gets here, it will definitely be considered,” he said.
“We don’t just squat on proposals, particularly proposals that might pass the House. We’d definitely look at [them].”
AT&T Chairman Michael Armstrong, one of the staunchest opponents of Tauzin-Dingell, told reporters last week following a Senate hearing on telecommunications competition that the bill doesn’t stand a chance in the upper chamber.
“I think that it’s bad policy, I think it’s bad law and I think it’s got a bad outcome for American consumers,” he said.