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Putting Candidates to Test on Media

Mar 16, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The presidential election may be the epitome of a horse race at the moment, but the television industry is watching to see which candidate it will have to do business with in the White House next year.
TelevisionWeek is taking a look at the candidates in a series of articles that lay out where they stand on key media issues.
This week, Republican Sen. John McCain, his party’s nominee, gets the treatment. We’ll take a look at the Democrats, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in coming weeks.
Sen. McCain, from Arizona, has the most extensive record on media issues of the presidential candidates.
He was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee from 1997 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2005, putting him at the forefront of media regulation. The committee oversees the Federal Communications Commission, and for eight years he played a major role in any FCC-related legislation the committee considered.
He also was co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform measure, which included a limit on how much TV stations could charge for commercial spots close to an election.
Sen. McCain often has complained, sometimes bitterly, about the lobbying power of broadcasters, but generally has sided with them on major votes. He has shown mixed support for cable, repeatedly criticizing price hikes.
Media Ownership
Sen. McCain voted against overturning former FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s 2003 bid to dramatically loosen media ownership rules. He’s generally supported the push to ease limits on how many TV stations and newspapers a single company can own in a given market.
In 1999, he offered legislation that would have allowed one company to own stations reaching 50% of the nation’s households, up from 35% at the time. (The final bill ended up at 39%.) He also proposed overturning the FCC’s ban on newspapers and broadcasters in the same market buying each other.
Yet Sen. McCain voted against a 2006 telecom bill that proved the key measure in leading to more consolidation. Moreover, he offered legislation that would have made clearer that the FCC could increase—as well as ease—ownership limits. The senator has repeatedly expressed concerns about some of the impacts of consolidation, especially in radio, and has accused broadcasters of pushing too far in their efforts to consolidate.
“The business of media ownership, which can have such an immense effect on the nature and quality of our democracy, is too important to be dealt with so categorically,” he said to Mr. Powell at a 2003 hearing at which the FCC approved loosening ownership rules.
Cable Service Pricing
Sen. McCain has been sharply critical of cable price hikes and has pushed cable providers to give consumers channel-by-channel pricing choices as an alternative. In 2004, one of his proposals would have given the FCC 90 days to initiate and 180 days to finish a proceeding to require cable companies to offer subscribers more choices in programming.
He has proposed such a la carte pricing as an answer to rising cable rates.
“Consumers should not have to pay for channels they find distasteful or they do not watch,” he said in September in a press release.
In 2003, he greeted an FCC report on cable prices with sharp comments for the system operators.
“The cable industry has risen to new heights in their apparent willingness and ability to gouge the American consumer,” he said.
Indecency
In 2000, Sen. McCain joined with three other senators in urging the FCC to take more action against indecency on broadcast television. The evidence shows “that many licensees, along with their network parents, are breaching this public trust and harming rather than serving the public interest,” the senators wrote in a letter to the agency.
Sen. McCain also supported the successful efforts to increase FCC indecency fines that followed congressional outrage generated by Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”
While most of Sen. McCain’s fire has been reserved for sexual content on TV and dirty language, the senator in 2000 joined with Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., on legislation asking the Surgeon General to examine the impact of the media on children. They also wrote an Advertising Age op-ed questioning whether there should be some limits on violence on TV.
The op-ed, which appeared after the high school shooting in Littleton, Colo., suggested the entertainment industry should work with the ad industry to limit “the practices of glorifying violence in the advertising and promotion of movies, music, TV programming and video games.”
Advertising Deductibility
During his 2000 presidential campaign, Sen. McCain offered a 43-point plan to reduce taxes and eliminate corporate welfare. His target? “The numerous inequitable and unnecessary corporate … loopholes, subsidies and set-asides” in the federal tax code.
As one of those points, he suggested advertising expenses be amortized over several years, rather than immediately qualify as deductible.
Advertising and media groups warned the change could have ad-spending impacts and that it was unfair to differentiate ad costs from a company’s other expenses.
The McCain campaign did not immediately return a call seeking comment on whether the senator still supports the proposal.
Campaign Finance
In 2002, Sen. McCain, with Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., put together the original campaign-finance legislation that carries their names. Until the current presidential race started, Sen. McCain continued to work on updating it.
The law had far-reaching effects on who can raise money and pay for campaign advertising; it also requires media companies to sell ad time to federal candidates in the weeks before an election at the lowest unit rate for any ad sold during the period. That can cost media companies money.
Some Republicans have been critical of the legislation, saying it went too far in limiting advertising.
Fairness Doctrine
Sen. McCain was one of three Senate sponsors last year of legislation that would bar the Federal Communications Commission from reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine, the policy requiring broadcasters to offer competing viewpoints in a balanced manner when presenting controversial issues.
“With the great number of media sources available today, divergent viewpoints do not have to be offered on the same radio or television show but can be found simply by channel-surfing, reading a newspaper or browsing an Internet blog,” he said in a June press release announcing the legislation’s introduction in Congress.

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