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Senate: Mixed NAB Blessings

Jun 16, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The good news for the National Association of Broadcasters is that the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to vote overwhelmingly this Thursday to roll back the cap on national TV ownership to 35 percent.
But the bad news is that the committee may also narrowly approve an amendment to resurrect a rule barring broadcasters from buying daily newspapers in their markets.
It means that the NAB, which has long made rolling back the cap a top priority, will not support the legislation if it also includes rolling back cross-ownership, and that means without NAB support it could be dead.
“If it’s the cap only, we will support it enthusiastically,” said Alan Frank, an NAB board member and president and CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations. “But if other matters are attached that we have taken positions on, including newspaper cross-ownership, we will oppose it,” Mr. Frank said.
In the best-of-all-possible worlds for NAB, the legislation approved would include only a provision to overturn the recent Federal Communications Commission decision to raise the ownership cap to let broadcasters buy stations reaching 45 percent of the nation’s TV homes.
That’s what the main bill, sponsored by Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., slated for Thursday’s vote before the commerce committee would do. But to complicate the picture, sources said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is planning to try to amend the cap legislation to kill the FCC’s relaxation of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule.
Key industry lobbyists are predicting that Sen. Dorgan’s amendment will be approved by a 13-10 margin, with several leading Republicans joining the Democrats on the vote-including Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss, Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., is the sole Democrat expected to vote against the amendment.
“It’s more about grievances about how the press has treated them than about policy,” said one industry lobbyist.
At least some industry sources say they are still holding out hope for a “clean bill” that would address only the national cap issue. Their hope is that lawmakers will shy away from anything that would draw NAB’s opposition.
“At this moment, it does appear that the cap will pass by a large margin,” said Post-Newsweek’s Mr. Frank. “As to other issues, it’s too close to tell.”
But other industry sources said they believed the bill could be beefed up even more, perhaps even with a provision from Hollywood’s creative community to protect the survival of independent production on network prime time.
“It could become a Christmas tree, and that will make it hard to pass anything,” said an industry source.
To avoid overloading the measure, sources said it appeared unlikely that lawmakers would attempt to roll back the part of the FCC’s decision relaxing the duopoly rules, which limit the ability of broadcasters to buy a second TV station in their markets.
Many local broadcasters support the agency’s duopoly relief. Including a duopoly provision in the legislation would raise their dander.
For that reason, watchdog group representatives are said to be focusing on rolling back the national cap and the relaxation of newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said watchdog groups have sent thousands of e-mail alerts urging citizens “to flood the Senate with the simple message: Reverse the FCC.”
“We hope to give the media industry the biggest political defeat in decades,” Mr. Chester said.