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Senate Committee to Take On FCC Rules

Sen. John McCain opens the door for a bill to change the commission's new ownership limits.

June 05, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The controversy over the Federal Communications Commission's loosening of media ownership rules moved to center stage in the Senate on Wednesday, with the influential chairman of a key oversight committee clearing the way for a vote on whether some of the changes should be scrapped.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday that he would schedule a June 19 committee vote on a bill to roll back an expanded national TV ownership limit approved by a 3-2 vote of the FCC on Monday.

McCain also said he would introduce a measure giving the agency authority to impose tighter ownership limits on the media industry, in addition to being able to relax them.

The new FCC rules have drawn fire from both Republicans and Democrats, who contend that the commission's actions will constrain diversity in entertainment programming and news. During a four-hour hearing Wednesday, some committee members vented at the five commissioners summoned to the meeting.

"It's interesting that the left and the right have gotten together on this as well in criticizing what you've done, and I hope to overturn what you did," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

The new rules did win some plaudits during the session.

"If times have changed, technology has changed. If we do have more outlets, then we ought to at least make sure that the process we use to regulate these media companies is keeping pace with those changes," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.).

A measure to reduce national TV ownership caps -- introduced last month by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) -- is almost certain to be approved by the committee's members, even though McCain opposes it. The measure would reduce to 35% from 45% the share of national TV viewers any one company's stations are permitted to reach.

But overturning the new ownership rules may be an uphill battle, since key House members -- including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) -- have vowed to oppose any effort to undo the FCC's changes.

A bipartisan group of senators has talked of circumventing the House opposition by attaching media ownership reform legislation to a broader appropriations bill that would be difficult to derail. Others, including Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), say they may pursue a "legislative veto" under the Congressional Review Act, which provides an expedited mechanism for Congress to examine and overturn virtually any federal agency rule. The process can be launched with as few as 30 Senate votes.

The FCC also repealed a 28-year-old ban on simultaneous ownership of TV stations and a newspaper in the same market. Under the new rules, one company can own a paper, TV stations and radio stations in all but the smallest markets.

The expanded national TV cap, which particularly galls critics, largely benefits owners of the nation's top four television networks: General Electric Co., which owns NBC; News Corp., which owns Fox; Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC; and Viacom Inc., which owns CBS.

"A combination of a massive public outcry and political self-interest" has galvanized Congress, said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Washington watchdog group Media Access Project. Schwartzman noted that lawmakers depend on the media to get their message out to voters.

Even FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, the rules' chief architect, expressed some misgivings about the changes and acknowledged that they could lead to greater media concentration.

"I think there will be an increase in mergers, but not to the extent that it would cause public policy concerns," Powell said.

He also reiterated his complaint that the FCC's congressionally mandated biennial review of media ownership rules was "destabilizing to the market" because of its frequency. He asked lawmakers to increase the interval to five years, and to give the agency more guidance on media ownership issues.

If the media ownership rules "are so inviolate," Powell said, "then Congress should make statutory rules."

McCain said he planned to offer a measure that would clarify that the agency has flexibility to tighten as well as relax media ownership restrictions.

"I intend to include specific language in a forthcoming FCC reauthorization bill to clarify that the commission may, and should, reimpose ownership restrictions as part of its biennial review where it finds such action would be in the public interest."

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