Elections' Effect on Media

Democratic takeover could be a mixed bag of pluses and minuses

“The House is gone.” That's the message from various lobbyists looking ahead to next week's midterm elections. “Gone,” of course, means to Democrats, and a change could have a variety of effects on broadcasters.

The Senate was still a tossup with two weeks to go, although Republicans were even money to retain it by a couple of seats.

If Congress does change hands completely, committee assignments should end up following seniority. Unlike the Republicans under Newt Gingrich, who bypassed some senior members after the 1994 Republican House victory, Democrats tend to hand out plum assignments by seniority. That would place Michigan's John Dingell atop House Energy & Commerce, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye chairing—or perhaps co-chairing—Senate Commerce, and Massachusetts' Ed Markey heading the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.

According to lobbyists, who unsurprisingly declined to talk on the record, if the issue is media ownership, a new Hill regime could spell trouble for deregulatory-hungry broadcasters. If FCC Chairman Kevin Martin tries to move a new set of deregulatory rules, Markey would likely try to block them.

Video-franchise reform would almost certainly not pass in a lame-duck session, although it probably wouldn't pass even if Republicans managed to win both houses, thanks to its linkage to the hot—make that scalding—potato of network neutrality. “Nothing will get done beyond a couple of continuing resolutions,” says a broadcast-lobby vet. “Democrats don't want to approve anything while the Republicans have the majority. They'll just declare a truce and go home.”

If the Democrats do pick up the necessary Senate seats, the top of the Senate Commerce Committee should not look too different. It is now co-chaired by octogenarian friends Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Inouye, “who can probably agree on just about anything,” says one lobbyist.

More problematic would be committee member Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). A video-franchise–reform bill could look much different with him in the majority party. He has been the committee's harshest critic of media consolidation. And on the House side, Markey and Dingell have led an effort to add stronger build-out requirements to the franchise legislation.

But don't look for telcos to back a condition-heavy national-franchise–reform bill presided over by the Dems. The phone companies would prefer to continue lining up franchises market-by-market while they push for state reform legislation, which they have succeeded in securing in several states.

The Democrats could offer broadcasters a more sympathetic ear on the DTV transition. “They tend to be more consumer-conscious,” says one lobbyist. “I think they will find the question of the DTV hard date more alarming. That could be a plus for broadcasters.”

Markey, who stands to take over for Fred Upton (R-Mich.) atop the Telecommunications Subcommittee, has said the hard date for the switch to DTV—now February 2009—could be a train wreck unless consumers are sufficiently notified and supplied with converters for their analog-only sets.

Markey is also more sympathetic to granting multicast must-carry to broadcasters than is current House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), who flatly opposes it. Look for any Markey effort to include public-interest conditions.

One lobbyist who has talked recently with Markey believes that the veteran legislator's regulatory ardor “will not be overwhelming,” however.

Senior VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies Adonis Hoffman also is looking for less regulatory zeal: “I do believe Democrats are mindful of their renewed pledge to be a business-friendly party. Hopefully, that posture will moderate and temper any urges to over-regulate.”

But Hoffman is steeling for increased attention to consumer marketing issues, including advertising prescription drugs, marketing to children, media content, consumer privacy and Internet regulation.

If Dingell takes over Energy and Commerce from Barton, broadcasters could actually find a friend on the issue of content-protection technology. Dingell has pushed the FCC to implement the broadcast flag, which it tried to do before getting slapped down by the courts.

If the Senate split is close enough, newly independent Joe Lieberman (Conn.) could bring the violence issue into play, particularly with an ally in Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has pushed for regulation of TV violence.

Dorgan and Markey have also been active on that front, advocating the V-chip back when the Dems still ruled the roost.

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