WASHINGTON - The Senate voted yesterday to repeal rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission that make it easier for the nation's largest media conglomerates to grow larger and enter new markets.
The rules, approved last June by a divided FCC, largely removed previous ownership restrictions on media companies. In most markets, they struck down the rule that had prevented one company from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city.
In the largest markets, the new rules also enabled a company to own as many as three television stations, eight radio stations and a cable operator. And they allowed the largest television networks to buy more affiliated stations, although Congress later rolled back that provision.
The new rules have already been blocked temporarily by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which is considering a challenge.
By a voice vote, the Senate approved a provision to repeal the rules and restore tougher restrictions.
Supporters of the effort said that the Senate's decision provided them with a backstop in case the appeals court does not rule in their favor. But the legislation still faces formidable political obstacles.
A similar measure was dropped from a different bill this year after encountering stiff resistance from the Bush administration and Republican leaders in the House, which would need to reconcile the latest measure in a conference committee.
"I'm not predicting any greater or lesser success than last time," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, after the vote. The North Dakota Democrat co-sponsored the measure with GOP Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.
"The president and the speaker of the House are determined to protect these rules," Dorgan said. "I am simply pounding away at this and trying at every opportunity I can to roll the rules back."
"Last June, the FCC performed one of the most complete cave-ins to corporate interests against the public interest in the history of the country," he added.
"When the number of people and corporations who control what 293 million Americans see and hear in the media shrinks to just a relative handful, democracy suffers," Dorgan said.
The media ownership rules, which have been supported by many of the biggest broadcasters and newspaper publishers, provoked widespread opposition from a coalition of consumer, civil rights, labor and religious organizations.
The effort to overturn them began as soon as the FCC adopted them. The Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, The Sun, Los Angeles Times and other newspapers and television stations, is among the companies that support the rules.
The architect of the new rules, Michael K. Powell, chairman of the FCC, has said they are vital in light of a series of court opinions questioning the old rules and a marketplace where consumers can subscribe to cable and satellite television services with hundreds of channels and delve into the limitless offerings of the Internet.
But critics have said that a small handful of companies dominate the programming on the airwaves and that consolidation in the industry has led to a decline in the diversity of voices and coverage of local news and community events.
They have also drawn a connection between the growth of the media conglomerates and declining programming standards.
Last year, a similar provision blocking the new ownership rules was attached by Congress to a spending bill, but it was largely stripped out of the measure earlier this year after the White House threatened to veto it.
The 2003 rules had given television networks the ability to grow to reach 45 percent of the national audience with their local affiliate stations from the previous limit of 35 percent.
But in a compromise reached between the White House and lawmakers critical of the rules, the legislation lowered that cap to about 39 percent - the current reach of CBS, owned by Viacom, and Fox, owned by News Corp.