Double Whammy for FCC’s Relaxed Media Rules

05 September 2003

Hard on the heels of Wednesday’s federal court decision to freeze the introduction of the Federal Communications Commission’s liberalized media ownership rules [WAMN: 04-Sep-03], comes a Senate bill which effectively does the same.

On Thursday the Senate Appropriations Committee green-lighted a spending bill that will delay for one year the FCC’s lifting of the media ownership cap from 35% to 45%. And although this decision does not in itself have legislative force, it virtually ensures that Congress will block the FCC’s move.

This turn of events will not be welcomed by the owners of the four major television networks: Viacom (CBS), NewsCorp (Fox), General Electric Company (NBC) and Walt Disney (ABC) - all of whom have campaigned vigorously for the lifting of the cap. It is, however, music to the ears of those who fear the further empowerment of Big Media.

But it is often overlooked that the hot potato of the 35% cap is just one of six media issues the FCC is mandated to review every two years, as required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Specifically …

• The TV-Radio Cross-ownership Rule, prohibiting one party from owning a TV and radio station in the same US domestic market, although owners in the fifty largest media markets can be granted waivers.

• The Dual-Network Rule, which prohibits one broadcast network from owning another.

• The Local Television Ownership Rule, prohibiting one party from owning, operating or controlling two or more broadcast TV stations, unless one is ranked below the top four.

• The National Television Ownership Rule, in which no single owner can reach more than 35% of television households, nationally.

• The Broadcast-Newspaper Ownership Rule, prohibiting broadcasters from owning a daily newspaper and broadcast outlets in the same city.

• The Local Radio Ownership Rule which allows one entity to own up to eight commercial radio stations.

Little wonder then that Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), chairman of the Commerce Committee and doughty defender of the FCC’s recent decisions, is scratching his head. He told the Senate Thursday: “I continue to be mystified by the inconsistency of separating the national television broadcast ownership cap from the local broadcast limits in legislation – an action that seems only to serve the members of the National Association of Broadcasters.”

[The latter opposes raising the national cap, concerned that its members’ negotiating power with the networks will be weakened. The NAB does, however, robustly support the deregulation of local ownership.]

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff