Senate vs FCC

It's shaping up to be a long hot summer for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell and his colleagues.

On Thursday, June 19, the US Senate Commerce Committee voted to overturn a June 2 decision by the FCC that would liberalize restrictions on ownership of media outlets, including television stations and newspapers. The agency's 3-2 party-line vote was expected to usher in a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the TV broadcast industry similar to the one that swept the radio business in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

That prediction may not come to fruition if sufficient legislative opposition follows the Commerce Committee's vote. Senators and congressmen were deluged with complaints from their constituents during the lead-up to the FCC vote, which was choreographed to minimize public participation. The July 19 move will put a bill on the Senate floor that could re-establish previous rules that blocked media conglomerates from owning TV stations and newspapers in the same market and from controlling more than 35% of the total broadcasting market. Similar bills are being introduced in the House of Representatives.

Sponsored by Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Ernest Hollings (D-SC), the Senate bill passed the committee by voice vote with strong support from both parties. Voted down were proposed amendments that would have provided exemptions for media conglomerates that have already taken advantage of looser FCC regulation, such as one by Senator John Sununu (R-NH) that would have allowed companies like Viacom and News Corp. to retain stations they already own in excess of the 35% limit.

The bill goes to the Senate floor with the approval of committee chairman John McCain (R-AZ). "I hope that we will send a clear message to the FCC to start all over," commented Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican.