- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003


The House voted yesterday to prevent federal regulators from letting individual broadcast companies own television stations serving nearly half the national TV market, ignoring the preferences of its own Republican leaders and a Bush administration veto threat.

By a 400-21 vote, lawmakers approved a spending bill with language blocking a Federal Communications Commission decision to let companies own TV stations serving up to 45 percent of the country’s viewers. The current ceiling is 35 percent.

Despite Republican control of the White House, Congress and the FCC, the House vote set the stage for what may ultimately be an unraveling of a regulatory policy that the party strongly favors. The fight now moves to the Senate, where several lawmakers of both parties want to include a similar provision in their version of the bill.

Top Republicans are hoping that, with leverage from the threat of a first-ever veto by President Bush, the final House-Senate compromise bill later this year will drop the provision thwarting the FCC.

In a show of defiance, FCC Chairman Michael Powell issued a written statement before the vote defending the commission’s decision. The five-member FCC approved the new rules on a 3-2 party-line vote on June 2.

“We are confident in our decision,” Mr. Powell said. “We created enforceable rules that reflect the realities of today’s media marketplace. The rules will benefit Americans by protecting localism, competition and diversity.”

A statement by NBC lobbyist Bob Okun praised the FCC decision as “a positive and much-needed step offering regulatory relief to free, over-the-air television,” and called the legislation “extremely disappointing to us.”

Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, chief sponsor of the provision that would derail the liberalized FCC rules, acknowledged in an interview that a tough fight lay ahead over keeping the language intact in the bill’s final version. But he declared victory, for now.

“It’s extremely rare to be able to reverse a regulatory decision that gives away the store to the big boys,” Mr. Obey said.

With programming power and many billions of dollars at stake, the battle has pitted the big broadcast networks against smaller-station owners and an array of groups, from the Christian Coalition to the Consumers Union.

“We’ve been facing a total roadblock on doing anything in the House,” said Gene Kimmelman, public-policy director for the Consumers Union. He said the House vote meant “that roadblock will be torn apart.”

The biggest beneficiaries of the FCC ruling would be Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS and UPN networks, and News Corp., owner of Fox. Owing to mergers and acquisitions, both already exceed the 35 percent limit.

Opponents of the FCC decision said it would give giant broadcast corporations too much clout, at the expense of communities and a diversity of voices.

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