Senate Committee Opposes FCC Media Regulations

WASHINGTON, D.C. The Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday moved to reverse much of the Federal Communica-
tions Commission’s recent relaxation of media ownership rules, casting bipartisan votes to restore limits on TV network size and prohibitions on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations.

As part of the same bill, senators voted to force radio companies to sell stations that exceed new local market limits proposed by the FCC, even if the stations were legally acquired under the looser guidelines in effect until the FCC’s June 2 ownership decisions.

The action sends the issue to the Senate floor, where supporters are hopeful of passage. No legislative action is final without concurrence of the House, and few were predicting what fate the bill would meet there.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and others, passed on a voice vote in the 23-member Commerce Committee chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The measure would roll back the FCC’s loosening of the so-called “network cap.” The FCC has ruled that companies can own TV stations that can reach 45 percent of the U.S. TV households. The senators restored that figure to 35 percent, the level that Congress chose in 1996 and that has been in effect since.

The bill would also require station divestiture by Viacom and Fox, which both own stations that bring them over the 35-percent level.

Other measures include reinstating the prohibition on common ownership of daily newspapers and nearby broadcast stations. The committee adopted an exception offered by Stevens that makes it easier for state authorities to intercede with the FCC on behalf of stations that might fail if not in partnership with a newspaper. The exception would apply for the smallest 60 of the 210 designated market areas.

In addition, the bill calls for removing the “grandfathering” provisions that the FCC included as it voted to tighten local market definitions, in effect lowering the number of radio stations one owner could hold in many small and mid-sized markets. McCain said the action would affect Clear Channel Communications and Viacom’s Infinity, but that the FCC was unable to tell him what other companies might be affected.