Contenders Clash on Media

Aug 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The Democrats have met; the Republicans won’t gather until the end of August. However, the issues that matter to the media industry are already clear, as are the views of both major contenders for the White House.

TelevisionWeek asked a range of industry insiders and Washington analysts to help us predict how President George W. Bush or Democratic challenger John Kerry would act on key issues in a new administration. Here is what they predicted would happen.

Media Ownership

President Bush has made no secret of his support for media ownership deregulation-something Sen. Kerry and running mate Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., have opposed. So at first blush, a Democratic Federal Communications Commission would be expected to be less amenable to additional deregulation. But some key lobbyists believe the FCC will leave the regulations alone no matter who prevails at the polls, because the effort by the FCC’s Republican commissioners to deregulate last year was met by an unprecedented roar of disapproval-and bipartisan opposition in both houses of Congress. “Who at the FCC is going to have the stomach for that?” one source said.

Indecency and the Makeup of the FCC

Whoever wins the White House will select commissioners from his political party as the majority on the five-member panel, and will control the agency’s chairmanship. So if Sen. Kerry is elected, Democrats will have a clear shot to put their stamp on FCC policy.

If Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps were promoted to the chairmanship, lobbyists predict that the crackdown on indecency would be particularly harsh. While President Bush’s Republican FCC has beefed up its efforts to fine stations for indecency violations, Mr. Copps has made it no secret that he believes the agency should take away broadcast licenses for particularly egregious indecency violations. Sen. Kerry voted for legislation to crack down on indecency.

Under the gun from Congress, the FCC just last week launched an inquiry to consider extending its crackdown to violent programming-whether it appears on broadcast, cable or satellite TV. Mr. Copps has been a particularly vehement critic of TV violence.

If Mr. Copps were named chairman, some lobbyists predict he would try to extend indecency prohibitions to cable, which is currently exempt from broadcast restrictions. Giving the issue a bipartisan flavor, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has also warned that Congress may extend the crackdown to cable.

Digital TV Transition and the Allocation of Spectrum

Both President Bush and Sen. Kerry have endorsed efforts to expedite the broadcast industry’s transition to digital. President Bush included a proposal (that wasn’t adopted) in his budget that would have used spectrum fees to encourage broadcasters to make the switch. In a campaign position paper Sen. Kerry said he would use subsidies to expedite the transition, “ensuring that Americans continue to enjoy free over-the-air television.”

Sen. Kerry does not spell out exactly how his subsidies would work. But Rep. Barton has been promoting a plan that would subsidize consumer purchases of digital-to-analog converters to make the switch without losing service. Both Sen. Kerry and the Republicans want to expedite the transition to get back broadcasters’ analog channels to reallocate them for public safety uses and to auction for new uses.

A la Carte and Controls on Cable TV

Political figures on both sides of the political aisle have expressed interest in clearing the way to giving consumers an option to pick and pay for only the cable TV networks they want-and the FCC is studying a la carte proposals for Congress.

Cable programmers say such a system would make it difficult to aggregate a large audience, which would increase the difficulty of selling advertising. That could end up making fewer choices available, they say.

Some Republicans and Democrats are also concerned that offering network choices in tiers might result in consumers paying more for fewer programming options.

Whoever wins, Rep. Norman Deal, R-Ga., has vowed to renew his efforts to promote a la carte next year-with strong support from the watchdog Consumers Union. Said the FCC’s Mr. Copps in a statement last week, “In the face of skyrocketing cable bills, consumers are attracted to the choice and empowerment that a la carte could give them. We also want to understand any problems with this approach, such as those who argue that a la carte would make it more difficult to establish new independent channels that increase diversity. Of course, there is a question about whether new channels even stand a chance in today’s increasingly consolidated market.”

Public Interest Obligations for Broadcasters, Including Free Time

With a majority at the FCC, Democrats would be expected to fast-track initiatives to beef up the public-interest obligations of broadcasters, proposals agency Republicans have opposed.

On the top of Mr. Copps’ wish list would be an obligation to require all broadcasters to provide at least some news coverage of controversial issues in their communities. In addition, Mr. Copps has made clear that he believes broadcasters should take on new political broadcasting and children’s TV programming obligations as they switch to digital transmission-a technology that will enable them to provide multiple channels of programming.