US Media Rules: Pro-Liberalization Lobby Musters

28 July 2003

Dazed by the unexpected tsunami of Congressional opposition to the Federal Communications Commission’s newly increased cap on ownership of broadcast television networks (which culminated Wednesday when the House of Representatives voted 400 to 21 to overturn the FCC’s decision) the Bush administration is planning its counterattack.

Within twelve hours of the vote, presidential officials said the White House would lean on lawmakers to retain the new rules. Failing which President Bush will veto the House bill as it is presently worded. Said White House mouthpiece Scott McClellan: “We are going to work with the Congress to try to fix that in conference.”

But some Republicans are worried a veto could backfire as America moves toward the 2004 presidential elections. Some Democratic presidential candidates have already cited the issue as an example of the Bush administration’s cosy relationship with big business.

“This is one of those Main Street issues where I think the leadership of my party is on the wrong side of the divide,” worries Representative Zach Wamp (Republican, Tennessee). “A veto would hurt the party politically, and it would be the last thing we need heading into the 2004 elections.”

Meantime, the four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC), which have for years fought the FCC in court over the lower cap, are escalating their lobbying to retain the 45% limit. But Viacom president Mel Karmazin played it cool.

While admitting that the company (which owns CBS and has already exceeded the previous 35% cap) is “troubled” by the House vote, Karmazin played down its significance. Speaking to analysts in a conference call, he opined that even if the House bill becomes law, there “is nothing in it that would force divestiture of stations”.

News Corporation (Fox) was in gung-ho mode: “We're going to redouble our efforts to show members of Congress just how good our local stations are and how much better they are at local coverage than many non-network competitors,” promised its spokeman.

And although the consumerist lobby is elated, it is not counting its chickens before they hatch. “We've just gained enormous momentum on reversing the FCC," said Consumers Union public policy director Gene Kimmelman. “The question will be just how thoroughly their wings will be clipped.”

Data sourced from: multiple origins; additional content by WARC staff