Senate OKs Limit On Station Groups

The U.S. Senate last week gave final congressional approval to a looser limit on the size of TV-station groups, setting the stage for President Bush to sign the measure into law. Opponents said they would redouble efforts to overturn the ownership liberalization.

In a 65-28 vote, the Senate passed a spending bill that allows TV-station-group owners to reach 39 percent of the national audience—up from 35 percent. While bipartisan foes said growth beyond 35 percent would erode local control of broadcasting, supporters said TV networks (the largest group owners) must be big to thrive in an era of competition from cable, satellite and the Internet.

The 39 percent level, inserted into the bill by the White House and Republican lawmakers, is less than the 45 percent originally proposed by the Federal Communications Commission in June. It corresponds to the level reached by the two networks with the biggest station groups, News Corp.’s Fox and Viacom’s CBS, a detail not lost on critics.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., pleaded for action on the overdue bill for a fiscal year that began last fall. “Issues of concern … will be revisited,” Frist said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “It is time to move on.” He prevailed, as Democratic-led critics allowed a vote.

“Both the policy and the process … are flawed,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., a leading critic of media concentration. “If anyone thinks we’re going to fold our tent and go home, they can think again.”