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McCain Delays Cap Legislation

Sep 29, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Throwing a monkey wrench into the congressional effort to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s media ownership deregulation, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has put a hold on appropriations legislation that would roll back the cap on national TV ownership to 35 percent of the nation’s TV households.
The senator is peeved, sources said, because he believes that media ownership issues should be decided by the Senate Commerce Committee-the committee he chairs-and not the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sources said the Arizona maverick is also angling to force a Senate vote on far more ambitious rollback legislation that would overturn FCC deregulation clearing the way for broadcasters to buy daily newspapers in their markets.
But industry insiders said the lawmaker’s effort to derail the appropriations measure is a long shot at best, because the appropriations legislation-approved unanimously by the Senate Appropriations Committee and by a 400-21 vote in the House-has garnered strong support.
Uncertain Prospects
“He doesn’t have the juice,” said one broadcast industry source.
Still, Sen. McCain’s intervention raises additional uncertainty about the prospects for the campaign by the National Association of Broadcasters and the affiliates to limit the rollback to the cap alone-particularly in the wake of the Senate’s recent 55-40 vote to approve a separate resolution that would overturn all of the FCC’s deregulation.
The bill that Sen. McCain wants put to a full-Senate vote not only would overturn the FCC’s newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ruling but also could force major group broadcasters, including Clear Channel Communications and Cox Communications to divest key radio properties. The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill in June.
“Policy with respect to media ownership rightfully lies within the jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee,” Sen. McCain said in a recent letter to Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I urge you to remove the objectionable material.”
Ownership Hearings?
In a glimmer of hope for Viacom and News Corp., sources said, Sen. McCain also has indicated that he wants to hold hearings on media ownership Thursday, Oct. 2, to re-examine rollback issues-particularly the issue of where the ownership cap should be set.
Like the riders on the appropriations bills, the Senate Commerce Committee legislation would roll the cap back from 45 percent to 35 percent.
But sources said the notion of finding a compromise-perhaps shifting the cap to 40 percent-is being batted around on Capitol Hill.
If the bar were moved to 40 percent, neither Viacom nor News Corp. would have to divest stations.
Corporate Heartburn
Pushing the cap back to 35 percent would cause major heartburn for both companies. Viacom’s CBS currently owns stations reaching 39 percent of TV homes, while News Corp.’s Fox holds stations reaching 37 percent.
Network officials last week said they were unaware of compromise discussions.
But in a Sept. 22 interview on Fox News Channel, President Bush said the White House was going to “work with Congress” on the rollback issue.
“There’s always a chance [of compromise] before Congress finally acts,” said President Bush, who, while expressing support for Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell, stopped short of a commitment to veto override legislation.
Sen. McCain has criticized the rider on the appropriations bill because it targets only deregulation that the NAB and its affiliate-dominated TV board oppose, not FCC deregulation they support.
NAB and the affiliates have advocated, for instance, a rollback of the cap in the interest of checking the power of the networks.
But the association and the stations have vowed to fight efforts to overturn FCC action easing the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules-deregulation that would be undone by the Senate Commerce Committee legislation.
“I continue to be mystified by the inconsistency,” Sen. McCain said recently, his tongue firmly in cheek.
Holds Can be Broken
Despite Sen. McCain’s druthers, some industry sources doubted he can derail the appropriations bill, because holds can be broken by the agreement of 60 senators.
Chris Murray, legislative counsel for the watchdog Consumers Union, said the commerce committee legislation would be good for the public because it is wider-reaching and could be permanent, while the appropriations bill would target one part of the FCC’s deregulation and for only one year.
“It is an opportunity,” Mr. Murray said.