FCC Tries to Cool Ownership Debate With Local Content Sop

21 August 2003

Beleaguered Michael Powell, the presidentially-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is feeling the heat of the FCC’s controversial 3-2 decision in June to lift the cap on media ownership.

The Republican party-line vote caused outrage in Congress, even among many of the GOP’s own supporters, triggering bills in both houses to reverse the FCC decision [WAMN: 24-Jul-03].

On Wednesday chairman Powell tossed a sop to the ravening politicos in the hope it will deflect their ire. He announced a move to increase the amount of localized TV and radio programming – one of the issues that has sparked such fierce opposition to the FCC’s liberalization of the ownership rules.

Powell conceded he had “heard the voice of the public loud and clear” on the issue of localized content and admitted that their concerns were justified. He was not, however, prepared to postpone the implementation of the new rules in September; nor to discuss the possibility of amendments.

Instead he plans to form a task force to investigate the issue of local content despite his previous insistence that “you [don’t] have to have an owner living down the street to be responsive to localism”.

Opponents of the Powell doctrine are not impressed, seeing the apparent concession as a political maneuvre. Accuses Andrew Schwartzman, president of consumer group Media Access Project: “This is designed to give cover to Republicans in Congress who may be willing to say Powell is addressing the localism problems on his own, and so there's no need for legislation.”

The bills opposing the new rules are expected to be put to the vote early this fall. And although President George W Bush has threatened to veto the bills, many see this as an empty threat given that the proposed legislation commands the support of a substantial number of Republicans on Capitol Hill.

With an election looming in 2004, few believe the White House would use its first veto against any bill backed by such extensive support from its own party and public opinion.

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