Broadcasters garnered strong support from the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee on Wednesday, with most members saying they are concerned about legislation that would require broadcasters, cable operators and satellite TV providers to always give politicians their lowest possible ad rates.
That amendment, sponsored by Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), was passed by the Senate last March as part of campaign finance reform.
"This amendment is akin to saying we're going to use public assets to help create the next government," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).
"I want to see the campaign finance system cleaned up and reformed, but in my mind the Torricelli amendment not only would fail to reduce spending, but also would unfairly burden broadcasters, cable operators and satellite providers," said Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).
Representatives from all three industries talked to the panel on Wednesday. Belo Executive Vice President Jack Sander said the net effect of the bill would be like "every candidate getting a first-class seat on an airplane, for the cheapest priced coach ticket from the previous year."
Andy Wright, general counsel for the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, said it makes no sense to apply such a law to satellite TV providers because they generally don't sell political advertising. Rainbow Media President Joshua Sapan said it should not apply to cable operators because their local advertising isn't expensive to begin with and because cable operators don't use a public resource to offer their services like broadcasters do.
Only Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, was there to defend Torricelli's bill.
"This amendment will advance the cause of campaign finance reform by closing loopholes that have gutted a 30-year-old law designed to ensure that during the height of the campaign season, political candidates receive the same low advertising rates that broadcasters make available to their best, high-volume product advertisers," Taylor said. "The main thrust of the bipartisan campaign finance bills before Congress is to reduce the supply of political money; this amendment would work hand-in-glove by reducing the demand for political money."
Taylor's organization-along with Public Citizen, Common Cause, League of Women Voters and Democracy 21-on Wednesday sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to support the Torricelli amendment. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) plans to introduce a similar amendment when Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) introduce their campaign finance reform bill on the House floor next month.
Even though panel members were for the most part sympathetic to broadcasters' view, they took some lumps from the regulatorily-inclined Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who is concerned that broadcasters never plan to convert fully to digital and give back their analog spectrum.
Sander told Markey his company is on track to do so, but Markey would have none of it.
"You're a good player in a bad industry," Markey said to Sander. "NAB picks the best broadcaster to represent the industry in order to shield the other bad actors."
Markey pushed Sander to commit to giving politicans lowest-unit rates on broadcasters' digital channels, but Sander sidestepped the issue.
"We need something from the industry, Mr. Sander. We have given you tens of billions of dollars."
Markey said he also planned to push the subcommittee to put a hard date on when broadcasters will have to return the analog spectrum. The law currently requires broadcasters to give it back in 2006, but only if 85% of TV homes have access to digital TV signals. - Paige Albiniak