Senate committee will consider rolling back eased media ownership rules

Thursday, June 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A bipartisan effort is underway in the Senate to overturn parts of a Federal Communications Commission decision that freed media companies from decades-old ownership limits and allowed them to merge and buy new outlets.

The 3-2 vote by the Republican-controlled FCC on June 2 allowed individual companies to own television stations reaching nearly half the nation's viewers and combinations of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same city.

Many media companies wanted relaxed rules, saying the old restrictions limited their ability to grow and provide better services in a market changed by cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet. The broadcast networks say the changes will aid in keeping free TV alive by helping them compete with pay services for quality programming.

The rules, originally adopted between 1941 and 1975, were created to promote diversity of opinion in the media, encourage competition and prevent a few big companies from controlling what people see, hear and read.

The Senate Commerce Committee is to vote Thursday on a bill sponsored by Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., that would roll back the national ownership limit so a company can own TV stations reaching only 35 percent of U.S. households instead of 45 percent.

Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has said he opposes the proposal.

Lawmakers including Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., plan an amendment to that bill that would reinstate the ban on newspaper-broadcast combinations. Dorgan and other lawmakers say they also will try other legislative methods to overturn the changes.

It's unclear how far these proposals will get beyond the committee. Challenges to the FCC rules face stiffer opposition in the House where Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, supports the changes and FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

Powell and the two other Republicans on the five-member commission pushed the changes through despite opposition from two Democratic commissioners and a diverse circle of critics. The critics included media moguls Ted Turner and Barry Diller, consumer advocates, civil rights and religious groups, writers, musicians, unions and the National Rifle Association.

Even without new legislation, legal challenges to the rules are expected from consumer groups seeking stiffer restrictions and media companies wanting even more deregulation.

News Corp., owner of Fox, and Viacom Inc., which owns CBS and UPN, benefit from the higher national TV ownership cap because mergers have pushed the media giant above the 35 percent level. The companies could be forced to sell stations if a new law is enacted and upheld in court.

The major networks wanted the cap eliminated, while smaller broadcasters said a higher cap would allow the networks to gobble up stations and take away local control of programming.

A 1996 law requires the FCC to study the rules every two years and repeal or modify regulations determined to be no longer in the public interest.

Powell says meeting the two-year schedule is too difficult. The committee is to vote June 26 on broad changes to how the FCC operates including extending the media review period to five years.