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Senators Target More FCC Media Rules

June 27, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congressional fallout from the Federal Communications Commission's relaxation of media ownership rules continued Thursday as a Senate panel again voted to reverse part of the agency's recent action.

The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee also expressed support for beefing up the public-interest obligations of broadcasters. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who heads the panel, said he would call a hearing next month to consider a proposal by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would require broadcasters to air a minimum amount of locally originated programs.

A previous FCC rule requiring that 5% of programming be locally produced was lifted in the 1980s.

Republicans, who have forged an unusual alliance with Democrats on the media ownership issue, praised the idea as a way to counteract the trend toward corporate ownership of local TV stations. "We don't have the localism we used to have," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Broadcasters are required by law to serve the public in exchange for their free use of public airwaves. But increasingly, lawmakers are questioning whether television giants are living up to that responsibility, particularly in light of the recent deregulation, which will permit further consolidation and cost cutting.

Eddie Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, called the lawmakers' comments troubling and said they were based on a "misunderstanding of what current regulations require." He said he looked forward to educating lawmakers at the hearing about how broadcasters serve the public.

The panel voted Thursday -- as part of a broader bill to reauthorize funding for the FCC -- to make additional changes to the TV ownership cap, which limits how many TV viewers a company can reach nationwide. The FCC voted June 2 to raise the cap to 45%, but last week the panel passed a bill that would retain the current 35% limit.

After a spirited debate Thursday, the committee approved a proposal by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that would phase out the so-called UHF discount. That discount, which the FCC voted to retain, effectively counts only half the viewers of UHF stations, allowing some station owners to exceed the national cap.

For example, Paxson Communications Corp., which owns many UHF stations, reaches about 62% of national viewers, but thanks to the UHF discount its reach is counted as only 31% under current rules.

Under Lautenberg's proposal, the company would have to sell some of its stations by 2008. He said the discount -- which was intended to reflect the weaker over-the-air signals of UHF stations -- was no longer needed because 85% of TV viewers receive their TV signals through cable or satellite, which carry the UHF stations.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters' Fritts said the UHF amendment would spur opposition to the bill when it reaches the Senate floor.

"The UHF discount should stay where it is," Fritts said.

A spokeswoman for Paxson had no immediate comment.

The bill comes one week after the panel approved similar legislation to reverse other parts of the FCC decision. Both bills appear to have some support in the Senate but face uphill battles in the House.

In a nod to the FCC, the committee also voted Thursday to loosen a statute that required the agency to review its media ownership rules every two years. FCC commissioners complained that the timetable was too aggressive. Under the bill, the FCC would be required to review its rules every four years.

The reauthorization bill also would increase the agency's enforcement powers by increasing the maximum possible fines tenfold. Under the bill, maximum fines would rise to $10 million for phone companies and $2.5 million for broadcasters.

Radio stations airing indecent material would face license revocation under an amendment offered by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.).

The bill also bans FCC officials from accepting compensation from industry groups for airfare or hotel stays while traveling to trade shows or other events. The agency has accepted nearly $2.8 million in free trips over the last eight years, according to a recent report.

"The FCC should pay for these trips itself to avoid the appearance of impropriety," McCain said.

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