A clear and present choice


If you ask George Bush, he'll tell you he's the best man to keep the economy booming. If you ask Al Gore, he'll tell you he's the best man to keep the economy booming. When voters demand more chickens in their pots, any candidate worth his salt will claim the poultry concession.

I can't tell you which of the presidential candidates will actually deliver the goods and ensure that those projected budget surpluses actually materialize. I don't think anybody can. To paraphrase Montana's folksy broadcaster-turned-Sen. Conrad Burns, a president's economic policy is like a rain dance. Its success depends mostly on its timing.

What I can tell you is that this election has profound implications for TV and radio. That choice will determine the pace of media consolidation, the weight of "public interest" obligations and how much freedom programmers will have to say what they want, when they want.

No doubt, Republican Bush would have a lighter regulatory touch. Count on the Bush FCC, led possibly by Michael Powell, to further relax the broadcast-station-ownership cap, now set at coverage of 35% of the 100 million TV homes. It would take it to at least 40% and possibly 50%.

A Bush FCC would also be a boon to those who want to wrap their media holdings in the morning paper. His administration would make quick work of the TV-newspaper crossownership rule, which has crimped Tribune's and Fox's acquisition style over the years.

Clear Channel and other radio consolidators would also benefit from a Bush victory. The antitrust division of the Clinton Justice Department has put the brakes on the local station-buying express. It imposed a share-of-market cap on local ownership more stringent even than the FCC cap. Unless advertisers kick up a fuss, Justice's trustbusters would ease up, or disappear altogether as they did during the time of Reagan and Bush the Elder.

What all broadcasters have to watch for is a return of the indecency police. Spurred on by the religious and legislative right, the FCC of Bush the Elder waged a vigorous campaign against electronic smut. Just ask Mel Karmazin. He had to pay $1.7 million to settle fines rung up by Howard Stern. The GOP's right wing, though more muted than it was a decade ago, is still around and, no doubt, still alarmed by what it is seeing and hearing on TV and radio.

If you want to slow the pace of consolidation, as a lot of mid-sized and small broadcasters do, then Gore is your man. He has a long history as a lawmaker and VP of resistance to media consolidation, although he presumably OK'd the Kennard FCC's relaxation of the duopoly rules a year ago that led to the Viacom-CBS merger and the Fox-Chris-Craft deal. The Kennard FCC has held the station-ownership line at 35%, and so it figures that future Gore FCCs would too.

In his book about his years as FCC Chairman, Reed Hundt readily admits he was carrying out Gore's agenda. And that agenda was alternately hostile and indifferent to broadcasters. Hundt/Gore tried but failed to stop the giveaway of digital channels to broadcasters, but succeeded in forcing TV stations to air three hours of educational programming for kids each week. Gore promised that the first bill he would send to Congress would be campaign finance reform. It's sure to call for free time for candidates.

Gore and his partner Joe Lieberman love the V-chip and ratings, which many programmers see as subtle forms of censorship. And they love to berate the media about excessive sex and violence. But at least with them, you won't have to worry so much about an indecency crackdown. Neither the Hundt nor the Kennard FCC has shown much interest in reviewing tapes for dirty words and pictures.

Another thing about Gore: He didn't invent the Internet, but he is a cheerleader for it and other new media. He will promote them, perhaps to the detriment of broadcasting and cable.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of everything Gore said in his acceptance speech two weeks ago, but he was right in saying that there are important differences between him and Bush. Among those differences is how they think about your business. Keep them in mind come election day.

Harry Jessell may be reached at jessell@cahners.com or at 212-337-6964.