Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Legislation to roll back the Federal Communications Commission’s media ownership deregulation picked up so much momentum in Washington last week that shell-shocked network TV lobbyists were privately conceding they might not be able to stop it.
“We’re taking it very seriously,” one network source said.
Getting the networks’ attention was a 40-25 vote by the House Appropriations Committee to approve a rider to an appropriations bill that would roll back the cap on the national TV station ownership to 35 percent.
The FCC, in its controversial June 2 vote, raised the cap to allow broadcasters to acquire TV stations reaching 45 percent of nation’s TV homes.
But the rider, offered by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the appropriation’s committee’s ranking minority member, would knock the cap back by barring the FCC from spending any money to authorize acquisitions that would exceed the old limit.
House leaders-led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.-have vowed to fight the rollback. In addition, White House officials threatened to recommend a presidential veto of legislation that included the rollback provision.
But industry lobbyists said they were skeptical about the ability of the lawmakers or White House to deliver, because of the heated political controversy the issue is generating.
Indeed, several sources said the key job for the industry now is damage control-that is, trying to limit the re-regulatory baggage that gets attached to legislation before it emerges from the legislative pipeline.
“There’s going to be some blood on the floor,” said one top industry lobbyist.
Said a network lobbyist in response, “We realize it’s got momentum, and we’ve really got to buckle down to try to turn it around.”
Last week’s committee vote stunned some network officials because the vote for the rollback amendment crossed party lines convincingly, drawing the support of 11 Republicans, even though Reps. DeLay and Tauzin had pleaded with their GOP colleagues to vote against the re-regulatory initiative. But other committee leaders-including Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., an influential subcommittee chairman-urged their colleagues to vote against consolidation.
Said a report by Legg Mason Equity Research of prospects for a veto: “We are skeptical the president would veto the spending bill over this amendment, given that support seems to be spreading like a prairie fire.”
Industry sources said the best shot left to derail the measure would appear to be in conference, when leaders of the House and Senate sit down privately to work out differences in their bills.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on its bill this week, and the committee’s leaders-Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.-have already made clear their support for rollback legislation that would resurrect the 35 percent cap but also bar broadcasters from merging with daily newspapers in their markets.
In the debate before the appropriations committee vote last week, it was clear that some lawmakers had scores to settle with the networks.
Rep. Wolf, for instance, said he was upset that NBC “literally shut us out” when the Peacock Network announced a short-lived initiative to run hard liquor ads a couple of years ago.
The concept that seemed to resonate best in the committee was that a rollback was crucial to limiting the power that networks are able to exert over the kind of programming that is aired on stations in lawmakers’ home districts. “I can’t believe the level to which commercial television has sunk,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. “It’s literally a garbage pit.”
Before taking its historic roll-call vote on the cap issue, the committee rejected an amendment by Rep. Anne Northrup, R-Ky., that would have resurrected an FCC rule that bars broadcasters from acquiring daily newspapers in their markets.
Rep. Obey said that while he personally supported the idea of overturning all of the FCC’s media ownership deregulation, he believed that widening the rollback beyond the cap at this point would kill the rollback rider politically. “My head overruled my heart when I found out where the votes were,” Rep. Obey said. “The way to win this argument is to take this on a piece at a time.”
Leading the charge for the networks was Rep. Jim Kolbe, R- Ariz., who argued that the regulations were unwarranted in the face of the diversity of sources of information now available to the public on TV and the Internet.