Lawmaker aims to stop ownership rule review

Jul 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The battle over whether to relax the broadcast ownership rules will heat up this week as a House lawmaker seeks to block the Federal Communications Commission from conducting a comprehensive review of the restrictions and the Senate holds a hearing on the issue.
Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, will try to amend the Fiscal Year 2002 Commerce, Justice State spending bill with provisions barring the FCC from using its funds to examine its broadcast ownership rules.
The agency plans to conduct its review this summer or fall with an eye toward eliminating any ownership restrictions that can no longer be justified in today’s marketplace.
Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., plans to hold a July 17 hearing on broadcast ownership.
“Under McCain it was going to be a focus on deregulation. Under Hollings it’s going to be a focus on media concentration,” said an industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., headed the panel until the recent shift in Senate control to the Democrats. Sen. Hollings opposes increasing the 35 percent broadcast ownership cap and has long advocated maintaining the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership restrictions.
Several sources last week speculated that Sen. Hollings, who heads an appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the FCC and other agencies, might add a rider similar to the Obey amendment to a counterpart bill in the Senate.
Sen. Hollings has championed such amendments in the past. But Senate Commerce Committee spokesman Andrew Davis was not aware of any plans by Sen. Hollings to condition the FCC’s funding. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, are vowing to block Rep. Obey’s proposal.
“We have been alerted to the possibility of the Obey amendment. Chairman Tauzin is going to do everything possible to kill it,” Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said.
The hearing, industry observers said, sends a clear warning to the FCC not to dismantle any ownership restrictions that Sen. Hollings and his supporters want retained.
“The purpose of the hearing … is to send shots to the FCC,” said Shaun Sheehan, a lobbyist with the Tribune Co.
Tribune has been fighting for years to end or relax the ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership restrictions and has been granted temporary waivers of those rules in Chicago and other major markets.
Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co., who will testify at the hearing, will tell the panel that to provide quality journalism nowadays, the company needs to own newspapers and television stations in the same market. He’ll emphasize that the marketplace is more diverse than it was when the rules went into effect because of the growth of the Internet, cable, satellite TV and other forms of media. Critics say this and other ownership restrictions are necessary to prevent huge companies from dominating the media market and drowning out alternative voices.
The additional witnesses are Alan Frank, CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations; Mel Karmazin, president and chief operating officer of Viacom; and William Baker, general manager of PBS member station WNET-TV in New York. The senator may hold a follow-up hearing featuring testimony from watchdogs, including Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Washington office of Consumers Union.