Big media issues hang in the balance in the battle for the White House. As President George W. Bush faces off against Sen. John Kerry, policy debates over the TV business will determine winners and losers in the market. Here's how the candidates stack up on the hottest issues:
A Bush FCC will continue to revive ownership deregulation, sparking another round of mega-deals. The trick for Bush will be to avoid pushing so far that skeptical Senate Republicans revolt and side with liberal activists opposing industry consolidation. Most likely scenario: A GOP FCC will establish relaxed ownership rules that will let regulators judge each merger on a case-by-case basis, rather than setting specific limits on how many stations can be owned or what share of viewers can be reached.
A Kerry administration will make noise about shrinking the largest companies, but the likelihood of bitter court fights with Viacom and News Corp. seems slim. Instead, the Democratic FCC will leave most rules as they are and tweak a few others. Most likely changes: It will be slightly easier to set up two-station duopolies in midsize markets, and the FCC will permit TV/newspaper cross-ownership in New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other huge cities.
Both candidates want the hysteria over sex and bathroom humor to quietly fade away. Why? Bush wants to ease up on his backers in big media. Kerry wants to lighten up on mostly liberal Hollywood. For Bush, however, there's no way out. The Christian right, a critical constituency, backs media moralists like the Parents Television Council and will continue harassing regulators, programmers and advertisers who support the crackdown. Prediction: Under Bush, the FCC's stream of fines against TV and radio will continue, and Congress will revive legislation to dramatically increase the size of fines when lawmakers come to town in early 2005.
The indecency uproar has the best chance of dying out if Kerry wins, but not if, as some observers predict, he appoints Michael Copps as chairman. Bypassing the senior FCC Democrat won't be easy. Besides leading the fight to clean up the airwaves, Copps has become immensely popular among liberal activists for his fight against media consolidation. Copps is also a masterful political tactician. If he wants the FCC helm, he'll wage a quiet but aggressive campaign for the job.
An FCC inquiry examining the need for indecency-style restrictions on TV violence probably goes nowhere, no matter who wins. The agency's call for public input on the issue generated less than 180 suggestions from everyday citizens, and few activist groups weighed in. Still, if there is movement here, it will likely happen under Bush. He'd be under more pressure to humor Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who's made a cause of fighting TV violence. Kerry, on the other hand, won't have to contend with Sen. Ernest Hollings, the Democrats' anti-violence crusader—he's retiring in December. Of course, broadcasters can still ignite a Janet Jackson-like conflagration.
Both Bush and Kerry are content to let the FCC figure out how to keep the switch to DTV moving. Bush, though, would be forced to mediate fights between meddling lawmakers within his own party. House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton thinks the FCC's 2009 target date is too late and is pushing the government to reclaim broadcasters' old analog channels and make stations go all-digital by 2006. But over in the Senate, former broadcaster Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is doing all he can to let stations keep their analog channels until most viewers are equipped with DTV sets or subscribe to digital pay-TV tiers, which could be 2010 at the earliest.
Even before Sinclair Broadcast Group made plans for an anti-Kerry documentary, FCC Democrats were pushing for public-interest rules that would obligate stations to air specific amounts of political coverage, kids' programming and locally produced shows. Now, a newly sworn-in John Kerry would likely back old obligations once believed extinct. Topping that list: requiring stations to offer airtime to individuals the stations have attacked on the airwaves. Democrats will also try to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which once required stations to air both sides of controversial issues. For a Bush FCC, there's little interest in public-interest obligations other than, perhaps, as bargaining chips to win Democratic commissioners' votes to pass a larger package of DTV rules.