Media Execs Urge Senate Panel to Ease Ownership Controls

WASHINGTON — Media executives attempted to convince wary Senate Democrats Tuesday that loosening controls over their industry would increase rather than limit consumer choices for news and entertainment.

But companies such as Viacom Inc. and Tribune Co. that want less oversight face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill: Key lawmakers say there is too much concentration in the media market already, reducing the richness and diversity of the content that reaches Americans.

“In my judgment, there is no basis and no case for increasing these limits,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.) at a Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday. The event focused on two media rules in particular: one prevents companies from owning TV stations that reach more than 35% of U.S. households; the other prohibits a business from owning a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market.

The Federal Communications Commission, which writes and enforces the limits, will examine both rules in the months ahead. FCC Chairman Michael Powell has expressed his skepticism about such broad-based limits, suggesting the rules could be relaxed or even repealed.

But Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, a Democrat from South Carolina, took aim at the new FCC leader’s viewpoint.

“That is not the law,” Mr. Hollings said. He planned to introduce legislation as early as Tuesday that would require the agency to justify to Congress any attempts to ease or eliminate media rules. It would take 18 months for the alterations to take effect.

Viacom, which owns the CBS network and a slew of cable channels, wants to see the limits on TV ownership thrown out.

The company is currently over the 35% cap, but doesn’t have to shed any stations because the limit is being reviewed by a federal appeals court. Viacom President Mel Karmazin insisted that allowing more consolidation wouldn’t damage the content that reaches viewers.

“Localism and diversity are things we think are very important,” he said.

He asserted that five years after the government loosened some restrictions on the industry, “there are far more programing choices.”

Not all industry players want to see the TV limit lifted. Stations that are affiliated with the major networks, but not owned by them, fear that if the cap is removed, CBS, ABC, Fox and NBC will swap up even more stations. That could give the major networks too much leverage to require that all of their national programming be carried by local stations, said Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations Inc.

In turn, station managers would lose their ability to pre-empt a national show with programming catered to their local viewers, Mr. Frank said.

Still, the committee’s Republicans showed empathy to the arguments for easing government restrictions. Top ranking minority member John McCain of Arizona noted that many of the limits were created decades ago.

“Since then, the media market has expanded exponentially,” he said.

Several GOP members also dismissed the rule prohibiting common ownership of a newspaper and broadcast station in one market as archaic.

Tribune Co. is among those seeking an elimination of that rule since its acquisition of Times Mirror Co. would give it newspapers in cities where it already operates television stations. Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Company, the media giant’s newspaper subsidiary, said the growth in the variety of information sources has put pressure on his industry.

To bring Americans better news coverage, organizations may need to pool their resources, he said. As an example, Mr. Fuller cited an award-winning project completed by the Chicago Tribune, the company’s local broadcast station and its cable channel working together.

“We’re doing what we can to continue to build the model of great journalism,” Mr. Fuller said.

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