Capital Watch


High Court Key to Campaign-Reform Survival

The Supreme Court is the last hope for a new campaign-finance–reform law that would restrict election-season political ads and ban large corporate and union contributions to political parties. On May 2, a special panel of federal judges declared most of the law unconstitutional and barred the Federal Election Commission from enforcing the objectionable parts. The ruling sets the stage for a final showdown in the Supreme Court, which was expected to take up the case no matter what the lower court ruled.

If the law is to be resurrected in time for the 2004 presidential election, the high court justices will have to revive it quickly.

The law, pushed through Capitol Hill by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), restricted the types of ads than can be broadcast near an election. The law also banned "soft money" donations to political parties, a gigantic source of funds for political TV ads.

Dereg Foe Urges Powell Recusal

There's little that Jeff Chester can say that would surprise FCC Chairman Michael Powell, but the FCC chief probably didn't see this one coming. Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, has been one of Powell's fiercest critics during the debate over media-ownership rules. Wednesday, Chester asked Powell to recuse himself from the review, the most important rulemaking media-wise on the FCC's plate. Chester charged that Powell favors deregulation so stridently that he has developed an "ideologically driven" record on the impact of industry consolidation rather than an objective one. "Under your leadership, the FCC has engaged in an intellectually dishonest inquiry," Chester wrote in the request to Powell. "Given your bias ... we urge you to recuse yourself from voting in the proceeding." The FCC is slated to revise nearly all its broadcast ownership rules June 2. A spokesman for Powell had no comment.

Tracking DTV Progress

The FCC will grill broadcasters, cable operators and programmers on their efforts to facilitate the DTV transition. Each industry segment will be put under a microscope to help the commission gauge the transition's progress and determine what, if any, additional regulatory actions are needed. The survey plans were disclosed May 1 in letters Chairman Michael Powell sent to heads of the Commerce Committees, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), respectively, and other senior lawmakers. Broadcasters will be asked whether they are using digital spectrum to its fullest with HDTV, multicasting and novel uses or simply offering a minimal single stream of standard-definition programming. Cable operators will be asked to tell which digital broadcast channels are being carried and why some aren't. TV-set manufacturers must detail the extent to which receiver improvements are being incorporated. All sectors will be asked to spell out efforts to promote DTV to consumers.

Los Angeles-Area TV Gets OK To Exit Analog Early

KVMD(TV) Twentynine Palms, Calif., won FCC approval to relinquish its analog channel and broadcast solely in DTV. The early return is being permitted because KVMD demonstrated that nearly all its viewers receive TV via cable or satellite, making traditional over-the-air reception unnecessary. To inform any unknown analog-dependent viewers, KVMD must announce the switch once between 6 and 11 p.m. four days a week until analog transmission ceases.

Groups Question Hispanic Acquisition

Consumer groups called on the FCC to block Univision's pending acquisition of radio group Hispanic Broadcasting if the deal would create greater concentration in Spanish-language broadcasting. "This merger, if approved, could result in a few large corporations obtaining excessive control over the most important sources of news and information in a number of communities," wrote Gene Kimmelman (above), Consumers Union Washington chief, and Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation of America research director.