Congress Approves 39% US TV Ownership Cap

26 January 2004

Legislation raising US television ownership limits now requires only the president's signature to become law.

The measure -- which will allow TV firms to own stations reaching up to 39% of America's homes -- is part of a huge spending bill approved late last week by the Senate. As this has already passed through the House of Representatives, it now goes to the White House for approval.

The new 39% ownership limit is higher than the current 35% cap, but lower than the 45% proposed by the Federal Communications Commission last summer [WAMN: 03-Jun-03]. The FCC's plans ran into vociferous opposition in Congress and from a wide range of lobby groups, which claimed the regulator was undermining local media and pandering to the interests of big broadcasters.

Lawmakers initially used the spending bill to hijack the FCC scheme altogether, passing amendments to prevent the watchdog from raising the ownership limit above 35%. But after the White House threatened to veto the legislation, a compromise of 39% was reached [WAMN: 25-Nov-03].

The final level is significant because it is high enough to allow all the big TV firms to retain their existing stations. Viacom and News Corporation had both increased their national reach to around 38% in anticipation of a higher cap, and would have been forced to relinquish assets if the 35% level had remained -- a situation that would not have won Big Media's political hearts and minds in an election year.

The bill is also significant in that it strips the FCC of the power to raise the cap further. The limit will now be controlled by Congress.

But although this national TV ownership dispute has dominated the headlines, the FCC's proposed relaxation of media law was in fact far wider-ranging. For example, the regulator also wants to ease restrictions on ownership of television and newspaper assets in the same market.

Now the spending bill has been passed, rebel lawmakers plan to turn their attention to these reforms, which have been frozen by a federal appeals court while they are challenged.

"If anyone thinks we're going to fold our tent and go home, they can think again," vowed Senator Byron Dorgan (Democrat, North Dakota).

Data sourced from: USA Today; additional content by WARC staff