TV Ownership Compromise

Give-and-take is the essence of politics. On Monday evening, November 24, demonstrating that it's better to compromise than to lose entirely, US lawmakers agreed to cap broadcast ownership at 39% of the national market of potential viewers—less than half-way between the old limit of 35% and a new one of 45% approved by the Federal Communications Commission last June. Some Democratic lawmakers decried the 39% deal as a betrayal by their Republican colleagues.

Following a public outcry, legislators had promised to block the implementation of the new, higher limit by attaching a rider to a government spending bill. Sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), the rider would have kept the limit at the previous level of 35% by depriving the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of an operating budget to implement the new one. With a White House veto threatening to scuttle the plan, legislators agreed to a compromise that will allow broadcasters such as CBS (Viacom) and Fox, which already reach 39% of the national market, to keep the stations they have. Other companies below that limit, such as NBC and ABC, will have leeway to buy a few more stations.

The proposed 45% limit was announced in June by the Republican-dominated FCC. The new regulations had been pushed through by Chairman Michael Powell, who had long lent a sympathetic ear to big broadcasters insisting that changes in technology and distribution of programming made it difficult to compete under the old limit. The decision to change the regulations was made with little public participation. When announced, it was met with outrage by consumer advocates from across the political spectrum, all of whom feared that it would put too much power in too few hands. Among the new cap's opponents was the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB); many members felt that it would give too much control to the networks.

Senators and Congressmen of both parties reacted similarly and promised to roll back the limit to 35%. When the showdown with the White House came, Republicans agreed too easily to the higher compromise, according to some Democrats. "The Republicans' decision to make the broadcast ownership cap 39% . . . was a total violation of the conference agreement. Both houses included the exact same wording," South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings told reporters on Tuesday, November 25. "The Republicans went into a closet, met with themselves, and announced a 'compromise.'" Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) promised that the compromise would provoke "a major battle" in the Senate. "I will not sit quietly by while the White House insists on provisions that are counter to the public's interest," he announced.

The new 39% limit could become law if it isn't overturned by challenges brought in the legislature or in the courts. The 45% limit was never implemented, but languished in a Federal Appeals court in Philadelphia. The Congressional compromise reached in November addresses only national ownership of TV stations. Still to be discussed are an FCC-initiated reform that would allow ownership of both major TV stations and newspapers in the same markets, and another that allows ownership of multiple stations in the same markets. Consumer groups fear that such consolidation could lead to tighter control of media. Legislators have promised to deal with these issues in the next congressional session.