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Broadcasters gird for McCain in power post

Nov 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

If the Republicans win control of the Senate this week, Prozac consumption in the broadcast and cable TV industries is almost certain to rise.
That’s because a GOP victory would mean Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would soon be back in the driver’s seat on industry issues as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
“He’ll be very difficult,” said one well-placed industry source, who asked not to be identified.
Since Democrats took control of the Senate majority last year, the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over broadcasting and cable legislation, has been chaired by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.
While hardly a patsy for the industry, Sen. Hollings has surprised some observers because he has caused so little heartburn for broadcasters and cable operators during his tenure.
In contrast, industry sources said Sen. McCain would be expected to make major waves as the committee’s chairman, promoting legislation to do everything from forcing broadcasters to pay spectrum fees to restructuring the way cable operators must offer programming to their subscribers.
“With McCain, you can have an honest conversation, without the lurking shadow of the broadcast or cable lobby,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy.
An aide to Sen. McCain last week declined to speculate on what the lawmaker’s priorities would be as chairman.
But just last month, Sen. McCain introduced legislation that would require broadcasters to pay spectrum fees to help underwrite advertising for federal political candidates.
In an interview with Electronic Media last spring, the maverick lawmaker also said he believes that cable rate increases have become a major national problem-and that the solution might be to reregulate or bust up cable’s tiers, requiring operators to sell programming services a la carte.
“I’m not sure an 80-year-old woman who subscribes to cable should have to pay for ESPN,” Sen. McCain said at the time.
In addition, industry sources expect the lawmaker to promote legislation that would force TV broadcasters to pay additional spectrum fees until they convert to digital and return their analog channels to the government.
Sources said Sen. McCain’s chairmanship could favor the major TV networks over their affiliates in at least one respect: While Sen. Hollings has opposed further relaxation of a Federal Communications Commission rule that bars broadcasters from owning stations reaching more than 35 percent of the nation’s TV homes, Sen. McCain is on record for deregulation.
The networks want to ax the cap, over the strenuous opposition of their affiliates and the National Association of Broadcasters.
Of course, Sen. McCain’s ascendancy to the committee chairmanship would also make it easier for Michael Powell, the FCC’s chairman, to follow his deregulatory druthers.
Despite the potential for some new legislative threats, key industry sources said they’re not unduly concerned because they beat down some of Sen. McCain’s key controversial initiatives before, when he was also chairman of the Commerce Committee.
“The question for Sen. McCain has always been what’s more important, headlines or results?” said one industry source. “I think the question answers itself. Broadcasters will be jumping through hoops but should be OK.”
Control of the Senate is an issue because the Republicans currently control 49 seats while the Democrats have 50. More than a half-dozen Senate seats are up for grabs in close contests, and key insiders say Republicans have a reasonable shot at increasing their representation there.
In the House of Representatives, there are 223 Republicans, 208 Democrats, one independent and three vacancies. But the consensus among industry insiders appears to be that the GOP will retain its control of the House.