A tightening race for control of Congress in the November elections has the television business bracing for change.
A shift in control of the House of Representatives away from the Republican Party would bring more scrutiny of the Federal Communications Commission and the agenda set by its chairman, Kevin Martin. A Democrat-led House also would likely hamper any attempt to let media conglomerates own more TV stations and portend more efforts to curb prescription drug advertising and advertising aimed at children.
“The major change would be oversight,” predicted Andy Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that works on FCC matters. “I would expect the FCC members to be on the Hill early and often.”
Handicapping the House and Senate races is complicated by factors ranging from a sex scandal involving former House Republican Thomas Foley to the war in Iraq. The health of the economy and the threat of terrorism are also tilting races. Democrats must gain 15 seats in the House of Representatives and six slots in the Senate to take control after the Nov. 7 election.
As many as 16 House elections are toss-ups and four Senate contests are too close to call, according to The New York Times.
The number of tight races puts Democrats tantalizingly close to reclaiming the control of the House they lost in 1994. Seizing the House would give at least four Democrats who have been outspoken on media issues access to leadership positions.
Under GOP leadership, the House has tilted toward easing media ownership rules, blocking so-called net neutrality legislation and largely taking a hands-off approach to the FCC. Republicans have also increased fines for broadcast indecency, but on indecency issues and some other media issues, such as whether cable should offer a la carte choices, the party line divisions have been less clearly defined.
Democrats have been more vocal in supporting ad curbs, whether limiting drug advertising or calling for limits on junk food and alcohol ads, but there, too, some Republicans have been aggressive. Political observers suggest the biggest differences will likely be in the priority Democrats place on dealing with some of the media issues.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., would likely head the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. might lead that committee’s telecommunications subcommittee. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., would probably head the House Government Reform Committee, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., would be in line to lead the House Judiciary Committee.
The Democrats have called for legislation on to prevent Internet service providers from forcing some content providers to pay more for faster service, and have blasted the FCC for moving to ease media ownership rules.
Dynamics in the Senate, which some political analysts say is less vulnerable to a Democratic takeover, could change even if the Republicans retain control. An increase in Democratic power may bring changes to the body’s stance on media and advertising issues, said Dick O’Brien, executive VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
“What will change is the pace, the tempo,” Mr. O’Brien said, noting that Senate Republicans have been unwilling to move legislation that would limit some advertising directed at children. “There will be more hearings, more testimony. They are much more likely to investigate our issues.”
The less-likely prospect of Democrats taking control of the Senate would bolster the power of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who has been critical of direct-to-consumer drug advertising. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a critic of some food advertising to kids, would also gain leverage, as would Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., another critic of some advertising.
On the House side, a Democratic takeover might bring more public fireworks on media issues.
Since June, Reps. Dingell and Markey have stirred controversy by demanding that FCC Chairman Martin explain the “intentional suppression” of several agency studies questioning media consolidation.
Reps. Conyers and Dingell have questioned ABC’s airing of “The Path to 9/11” miniseries. Reps. Dingell and Markey have criticized Republicans, saying they haven’t provided enough money for converters that will allow existing analog TVs to receive digital broadcasts when the country switches to digital TV in 2009 and have demanded that Mr. Martin provide more information about what the FCC is doing to inform consumers about the upcoming transition.
Rep. Dingell has blasted the FCC for taking too long to resolve indecency complaints, and Rep. Markey questioned cuts in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Just last week, Rep. Markey criticized the Justice Department’s approval of an ATT-BellSouth deal.
That record of activism builds on past positions that don’t jibe with the Republican agenda on media issues. Rep. Waxman has questioned the Bush administration and TV stations’ use of government-created video news releases. He’s also raised questions about whether the Food and Drug Administration has adequately supervised ads that market prescription drugs directly to consumers.
The lawmakers mentioned in this report either declined to comment or didn’t return calls requesting comment.
“Depending on how the election comes out, you have some congressmen who have been outspoken on some very significant issues, and some of these issues may accelerate in the next Congress,” said Dan Jaffe, executive VP of the Association of National Advertisers.
Jeannine Kenny, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union, said Democrats could also start a wave of investigations of past FCC and administration decisions on media issues.