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Lawmakers Review Media Ownership Caps, This Time in Name of Decency

Senators ask whether consolidation leads to more complaints. Panel OKs delay of FCC rules.

March 13, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congress' drive to crack down on indecent radio and television broadcasts has given new momentum to an old campaign to prevent big media companies from becoming even bigger.

In a demonstration that reruns are inevitable not just on TV but in politics as well, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is seizing on the popularity of anti-indecency legislation to try to undo media ownership rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission last year.

The House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would sharply increase the penalty for radio and TV stations and on-air entertainers who violate federal indecency rules. Fines per broadcaster would rise from $27,500 to a maximum of $500,000 per violation. The Senate is expected to take up a similar measure soon.

But the bill as approved by the Senate Commerce Committee would do something else too: It would delay for one year some of the new rules relaxing the limits on how many broadcast outlets a single company may own. The measure is designed to give Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, time to study whether there is a relationship between media consolidation and the rise in complaints about broadcast indecency.

The proposed delay, which is not part of the House bill, is likely to be the most contentious issue once the Senate passes its version of the legislation.

House Republican leaders said their chamber did not include the controversial media-ownership provision in its indecency bill because they did not want to jeopardize the measure. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chief author of the House indecency bill, said the media ownership issue would be a "poison pill" for final passage. But Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, acknowledged that the media ownership issue "is not going to go away."

Indeed, a bipartisan coalition of senators appears determined to use the indecency bill to renew a fight that raged last year both at the FCC and in Congress.

"We cannot ignore the negative effects that media consolidation has had on the quality of programming on the airwaves," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said. "I do not think we can dismiss the connection between consolidation and the rise in disregard for family and community standards."

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota vowed in a speech this month to the National Assn. of Broadcasters to revisit the question of media ownership.

The Senate measure would freeze for a year rules adopted by the FCC last year that would expand the number of media properties a company could own in a single market, including allowing a firm to own a newspaper and broadcast station in the same city in many cases.

Critics of media consolidation, who have challenged the rules in court, say the trend leads to losses of local control and of diversity of views in programming.

"As broadcast station ownership moves farther and farther away from the local community, broadcasters are becoming further and further out of touch with local community standards," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who sponsored the amendment to the Senate indecency bill that would put some media ownership rules on hold.

Although the Senate bill would leave in place a congressional compromise from earlier this year that allows a single company to own TV stations that reach 39% of the nation's viewers, some lawmakers are pushing to lower the cap to 35%.

The FCC, in a party-line, 3-2 vote, raised the cap to 45% last year. Both houses of Congress last year voted to roll it back to 35%. But in the end, lawmakers set the cap at 39% after the White House threatened to veto a giant spending bill.

Representatives of those most likely to be affected by a cap change, including CBS owner Viacom Inc., Fox parent News Corp. and General Electric Co.'s NBC, declined to comment.

However, some media executives conceded privately that they were concerned the controversy over indecency would reinvigorate attempts to roll back ownership caps.

Daschle will be looking for opportunities -- whether through the indecency bill or other measures -- to revamp the rule that has given News Corp. Chairman "Rupert Murdoch more control over local programming," Daschle's spokesman said.

Efforts to revisit the media ownership issue enjoy bipartisan support in the Senate, but the House is a different story. There, Republican leaders blocked an effort to bring up the issue for a vote during the debate on the indecency bill. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who unsuccessfully tried to get his colleagues to reexamine the FCC rules, said Friday, "There are strong forces against changing anything."

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Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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