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Editorial: Backroom Deal on Cap Raises Concerns

Dec 8, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As comforting as it might be to finally have some certainty about where the television station ownership cap is headed, both the ownership “compromise” and the way it came about are troubling.
Barring a surprise in Congress-something that can’t be counted out-the cap appears to be permanently locked in at 39 percent of the nation’s television homes, thanks to an agreement last month between the White House and a few key Republican lawmakers. The backroom deal, reportedly cut personally between Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, ends months of speculation about the fate of the cap.
The cap, which represents the maximum number of homes that can be reached by stations owned by any single media company, was raised from 35 percent to 45 percent by the Federal Communications Commission back in June as part of a sweeping set of media deregulation measures. Momentum to roll it back to 35 percent had been building on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill after stations, activist groups and the public reacted with outrage to the FCC’s deregulation moves. Last month’s agreement effectively stops that momentum.
The 39 percent cap, characterized as a compromise by proponents of the pact but decried by the opposition as an end-run around the democratic process, is a win for the networks. Fox and CBS, which were already over the 35 percent cap, come in just under 39 percent and no longer have to worry about being forced to divest. ABC and NBC, meanwhile, have additional room to acquire stations.
The deal is a mixed blessing for stations, which have been on the front lines of the fight against media consolidation. The National Association of Broadcasters, after lobbying to roll back the cap to 35 percent, gave its endorsement to the permanent 39 percent cap and appeared to be relieved that the issue would finally be put to rest. Similarly, the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, which spearheaded the rollback effort and has long battled what it considers abuse of power by the big networks, welcomed the prospect of stability after a turbulent period in the relationship between affils and nets.
Maybe such resigned acceptance is the best response. The industry has enough serious concerns on its plate at the moment that some unity among broadcasters can only help. Nonetheless, we are disturbed by the politicking that wrested the issue from Congress and put it in the hands of a few Washington power brokers. While hardly a surprise, the maneuver is a startling reminder of how easily the will of the people can be cast aside.