Media concentration foes assail shift

Republicans ease limit on TV station ownership

November 26, 2003|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Opponents of greater media concentration expressed outrage yesterday over a congressional maneuver that could allow more consolidation in the television industry.

The move late Monday was a "total violation" of protocol, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, said in a statement.

White House officials and Republican congressional leaders "went into a closet, met with themselves, and announced a `compromise"' on how many TV stations one company could own, he said.

Hollings was angered because the House and Senate voted earlier in the year to cap a TV network's potential national audience at 35 percent of all viewers, rather than the 45 percent approved in June by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

President Bush supports the looser limit, and had threatened to veto any legislation lowering it.

Monday night, White House officials and key Republican lawmakers agreed to set a 39 percent limit, attaching it as a rider to a $328 billion spending bill. That would mean that the ABC and NBC networks would be able to acquire more TV stations but that CBS and Fox, each of which reached about 39 percent of potential viewers, could not grow.

Hollings said that because the House and the Senate had voted for the lower limit, "the item was not in dispute" and should not have been subjected to any kind of negotiations.

Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, said, "The way these guys are doing legislation is outrageous."

Still, given Bush's strong support for FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell's effort to raise the media limit to 45 percent, the downward shift was a partial victory for consumer groups.

"It repudiated Powell's FCC," Cooper said.

The Republican-dominated FCC had voted 3-2 along party lines to change decades-old restrictions on media, arguing that those rules had become obsolete in an age of cable television, satellite broadcasts, the Internet and other technologies.

Yesterday, the FCC had no comment on the legislation.

Despite the deal reached Monday, the issue of media concentration is far from settled. Congress is not expected to complete the $328.1 billion spending bill until January, and some think it could be revised.

The FCC also changed its rules to allow a single company to own the top-rated television station and biggest newspaper in most markets, and to allow one company to own more TV stations in the largest cities.

Those provisions and the national viewership ceiling have been blocked by a federal court in Philadelphia pending a judicial review. Oral arguments are scheduled for Feb. 11 in a federal court in Pennsylvania.

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