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Election Signals Major Changes on Media Issues

Nov 2, 2008  •  Post A Comment

It may be the end to the presidential campaign, but Tuesday’s vote kicks off a high-stakes battle over media issues in the next Congress and administration.
Broadcasting, advertising and consumer groups say that no matter who wins the presidency, there will be major changes in Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, the Justice Department and the administration.
Most of those battles will start playing out next year, but some will quickly come to the fore as Congress reorganizes and the new administration names its leadership.
While Washington broadcasting officials declined to go on record, some admit that while they are worried about what’s coming, the campaign’s strong focus on the economy and healthcare could see media issues taking a back seat next year.
Here are some of the scenarios ahead:
The FCC: Barack Obama’s election would bring the biggest changes, with the first question being whether an Obama FCC would reverse the Bush administration’s easing of media ownership rules. Sen. Obama has been highly critical of the past easing of the rules, questioning whether the FCC acted before sufficiently understanding what impact more consolidation could have on minority ownership or local programming.
A John McCain administration also could bring changes, as Sen. McCain has criticized cable price increases.
Under both administrations, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin would be out, at least as FCC chairman. He could remain as a commissioner, but isn’t expected to. Sen. Obama likely would designate one of the two Democratic FCC commissioners as the acting chairman while awaiting confirmation of a new FCC chairman. Mr. Martin likely wouldn’t face a much different fate in a McCain administration, though it might take a little longer to replace him.
Whoever takes the FCC helm, the agency’s immediate focus has to be the digital transition. But a switch to the Democrats could bring a new urgency to revising product placement rules, as well as potentially making the FCC less likely to take on indecency cases and perhaps easing the agency’s push of a la carte cable. Whether or not the agency backtracks on ownership, the FCC’s focus on minority ownership and local content could increase and there could be an attempt to more clearly define broadcasters’ public-interest obligations.
The FCC also has a backlog of broadcast renewal licenses on which to act.
Either the FCC or Congress: If the Democrat wins the presidency, expect a ban on Internet service providers giving favored content providers a faster path to consumers—aka “net neutrality.” The only real question is whether the ban will come from Congress or the FCC.
Justice Department: The Bush administration gave little critical scrutiny to media-related deals. Either new president would bring a more questioning department, with an Obama administration likely to bring the toughest questioning.
Congress: The election could change some of Congress’ main players on media issues, bringing with that change some uncertainty. Any significant changes in the Senate composition could present additional challenges to broadcasters.
The Senate Commerce Committee handles media legislation. It’s not yet clear if the committee’s chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, will depart to head another Senate committee, but if he does, his replacement would be Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. Sen. Inouye has held relatively few hearings on media issues, while Sen. Rockefeller has questioned violence in the media and offered legislation that could set some limits on broadcasters. Across the aisle, ranking Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who is up for re-election and was just convicted of making false statements, is expected to be replaced either by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, or, if she declines the post, by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Ms. Snowe has been critical of media consolidation.
Democratic gains also would improve the prospects of Senate passage of a range of legislation with media implications. Among possibilities: New curbs on direct-to-consumer drug ads and new privacy limits on the collection and combining of information for consumer ad targeting. Ad groups are most worried that the federal deficit will lead to attempts to raise money by taxing media advertising.
Some Republicans have predicted Democratic control would prompt the FCC or Congress to revive the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, though there has been little sign of legislation. The Fairness Doctrine, abolished by the FCC in 1987, required broadcasters to devote equal time to contrasting views on matters of public importance, and its revival could spell trouble for talk radio.
Other issues: Congress has to reauthorize the legislation that allows direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers to rebroadcast local stations, forcing Congress to face up to retransmission issues.

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