The media ownership limit trade-off between the White House and congressional Republicans [WAMN: 25-Nov-03] has sparked rebellion among Democratic lawmakers, who vowed Tuesday to fight the compromise, condemning it as "a backroom deal".

The eleventh-hour accommodation would permit any one TV broadcaster to own local stations reaching 39% of the national audience -- that percentage being permanently fixed unlike the previous barrier of 35%, which was subject to biennial review by the Federal Communications Commission.

The Republican-dominated FCC upped the limit to 45% in June after intensive lobbying by media mammoths such as Viacom and News Corporation. But last week a bipartisan consensus among congressional members agreed to restore the 35% cap following a tsunami of opposition to the increase from consumer groups and smaller media rivals.

Throughout the debate, repeated warnings emanated from the White House that President George W Bush would veto any bill that overturned the FCC's decision. But exercise of the Bush veto on such a populist matter would have been politically inexpedient in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election -- hence the proposed compromise.

Leading the Republican retreat from the consensus was Senator Ted Stevens (Alaska), chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, who accepted the 39% presidential olive branch. Defending the compromise, Stevens called the fixed 39% an improvement over a one-year rollback to 35% because it blocks the FCC from future easing of the limit or granting individual waivers.

But Senator Byron Dorgan (Democrat, North Carolina) slammed Republicans for backtracking on a bill already agreed by House and Senate conferees. "That will undermine the entire process of appropriation conferences," he said in a letter to Republican leaders. "I intend to continue the fight to overturn [the raised cap]."

If approved by Congress, the compromise 39% cap would grant divestment reprieves to companies who jumped the 35% gun in anticipation of the higher rate. These include Viacom, whose CBS unit reaches 38% of the national audience, and NewsCorp's Fox (37%).

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