Stevens Boosts Rules Rollback

Jun 23, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The prospects for a legislative overthrow of the Federal Communications Commission’s relaxation of its media ownership restrictions improved dramatically last week when Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, emerged as a leading champion of a rollback.
Before the Republican lawmaker showed his colors, the industry consensus had it that a rollback was highly unlikely because House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., has vowed to derail the initiative in the House. Most telecommunications legislation has to pass through his committee before it receives a vote.
“Unfortunately, this has become a political soap opera and, given the chance, Chairman Tauzin intends to cancel its run,” Ken Johnson, Rep. Tauzin’s spokesman, said last week.
But as the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Stevens can do a legislative end-run around Rep. Tauzin, including placing a rollback as a rider on a hard-to-veto appropriations bill.
The prospects for a rider appear to be all the more likely because other key senators-including Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.-have already given their blessings to the concept.
One fly in the ointment is that House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Young, R-Fla., has made clear his opposition to including controversial riders on appropriations bills.
Even so, Sen. Stevens is widely recognized as a legislative bulldog on Capitol Hill, notorious for getting his way.
Sen. Stevens emerged as the re-regulatory movement’s unlikely savior during a Senate Commerce Committee vote last week on measures to nullify the recent FCC action.
As expected, Sen. Stevens supported the main bill on the committee’s agenda, a National Association of Broadcasters-backed provision to roll back the national TV ownership cap from 45 percent to 35 percent of the nation’s TV homes, a measure for which he was a co-sponsor.
But it came as a surprise when the lawmaker also announced his support for an amendment backed by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to nullify an FCC decision substantially relaxing a rule that barred broadcasters from buying daily newspapers in their markets.
The price for Sen. Stevens’ support was yet another amendment that would clear the way for cross-ownership waivers in the nation’s 60 smallest markets, when those are deemed to serve a public interest, including the preservation of local ownership, one of the lawmaker’s key concerns.
“He’s generally been concerned about consolidation,” a source close to Sen. Stevens said.
The Senate Commerce Committee vote came as a stinging rebuke to the FCC’s Republican majority.
Besides nullifying the FCC’s relaxation of the national ownership cap and the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership restrictions, the legislation also could force major group broadcasters, including Clear Channel Communications and Cox Communications, to divest key radio properties.
If the legislation becomes law, Viacom and Fox would be particularly hard hit because they currently own stations reaching more than 35 percent of TV homes. The Senate Commerce Committee rejected an amendment that would have spared them the necessity of divesting enough stations to comply with the cap’s ceiling.
In another questionable development for the networks, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., announced that he and Rep. Tauzin have agreed to broker talks with industry representatives to consider the demands of independent producers for more representation on the prime-time schedules of the major TV networks.
The Commerce Committee’s vote amounted to a wicked slap at the NAB, which wanted committee members to roll back the national ownership cap but to leave unmolested other deregulation the FCC provided.
In the vote’s wake, NAB announced that it would now have to oppose the entire measure.
Also in the wake of the vote, Democratic FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein asked the agency to stay its relaxation of the media ownership restrictions.
“In light of the very real possibility that Congress will reverse the commission’s vote to loosen its media ownership limits, I believe the FCC should defer to today’s congressional action and stay its decision until the people’s elected representatives complete their deliberations on media concentration, “ Mr. Copps said last week.
“This strong and bipartisan committee action should flash the orange light of `slow down and prepare to stop’ for those media companies rushing to buy, sell or swap stations all across America.”