Washington turned Democratic blue after last week’s midterm elections, with broad implications for broadcasters and cable operators. The change in the makeup of the House and Senate could affect the TV-sex-and-violence debate and give new ammo to foes of media consolidation.
Sensing the shift among voters, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) hedged its bets and began funding key Democrats toward the end of the campaign.
NAB President David Rehr, hired in part for his red-state connections, assured reporters the day after the election that he can effectively work with Democrats, who will control both the House and, by the slimmest of margins, the Senate.
“I have a lot of friends who are Democrats,” says Rehr, who will be looking to make some new ones as well.
Much of the NAB’s PAC-money donations to Democrats came in the final phase of the campaign. Early on, 67% of NAB money was going to Republicans and only 33% to Democrats, according to the Website opensecrets.org.
THE GAP NARROWED
As the election neared, the NAB upped its Democratic percentage to 45% of the $700,000 it directed to candidates or parties. “Our giving pattern is the best it’s been for Democrats for five or 10 years,” Rehr says.
NAB’s blue-state bankroll included contributions to the campaigns of Rep. Nancy Pelosi ($2,500 to her campaign, $5,000 to the Democratic-leadership PAC), Rep. Ed Markey ($10,000) and Rep. John Dingell ($7,000).
It even contributed to frequent media critic Sen. Joe Lieberman ($6,000) because the Connecticut Democrat-turned-Independent was running against Democratic candidate Ned Lamont, whom Rehr calls “a cable guy”; Lamont owns a small cable company.
Now the NAB and, to a lesser extent, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) will have to cozy up to new pols. In the House, Markey (of Massachusetts) and Dingell (Michigan) are in line to take over the House Telecommunications Subcommittee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, respectively. The Senate Communications Subcommittee will probably stay much the same, with the current co-chairmen switching chairs. Most of the telecommunications-bill action will probably come from the House side.
The old Congress comes back this week for a last, lame-duck hurrah, but that will likely be focused on the budget. One broadcast-related action could be FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s renomination hearing and vote. There has been a hold on his nomination, widely believed to have been placed by Senator John Sununu (R-NH) over Internet- phone issues.
Rehr is already looking forward to the next session and was talking up Dingell last week as a more broadcaster-friendly Energy and Commerce chairman than current Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), who was, among other things, dead set against digital multicast must-carry.
“Joe Barton came out of kind of the ultra–free-market perspective,” Rehr says. “You know: 'Government shouldn’t be involved at all. Why should we give you anything? You should have to pay for everything.’”
By contrast, he says, Dingell “has had a very good relationship with the Michigan Broadcasters Association and our television board Chair Alan Frank [from Post-Newsweek in Detroit].”
DINGELL TALKS TOUGH
The NCTA was not weighing in on the new Congress, but essentially the Energy and Commerce Committee will be switching “a cable guy” in Barton for a broadcaster/telco-friendly chairman in Dingell.
That may not be so damaging. Lobbying is about relationships, and NCTA chief Kyle McSlarrow is well-liked and well-respected, says a lobbyist who often argues the other side on cable issues.
For his part, Dingell wasn’t throwing kisses at either the broadcast or the cable industry. At a press conference last week, he said the committee will take a hard look at any loosening of media-ownership rules, with an eye toward protecting the public interest and diversity of voices.
Another veteran lobbyist sees a tough time for the FCC’s Martin on ownership issues, with hearings and perhaps even legislation blocking further deregulation. One lobbyist says Democratic Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, vocal consolidation critics, “will be happy to gin things up.”
This lobbyist, however, says, “I expect, if they do anything on ownership, it will be [lifting the ban on newspaper/broadcast crossownership] and that will be it.”
A veteran Washington communications lobbyist is less optimistic than Rehr and thinks the NAB has “a little bit of an uphill climb.” Another calls it “rough sledding.” That’s even considering that the organization recently added a quartet of Democratic lobbyists, including the newly hired former Texas Democratic Congressman Max Sandlin.
Rehr sees Democrats’ traditional consumer-friendliness working for broadcasters on issues like multicasting and freeing up more money for DTV-to-analog converter boxes.
Currently, as much as $1.5 billion has been allocated to pay for the converters, but Rehr thinks the Democrats could free up some more. “I believe there is going to be more than the $1.5 billion.”
The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, he says, is that, when the money runs out, “the Republicans will say, 'You spent all the money, too bad.’ The Democrats will not allow a person to be disenfranchised.”
The downside is that there will likely be more attention on direct-to consumer drug and alcohol advertising. Dingell says those issues, with billions of ad dollars at stake, are on his radar screen. And, with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Lieberman wielding more power, TV violence could get more attention, an issue Rehr says the NAB TV lobbying staff is going to start paying more attention to.
On the red-hot-button issue of indecency, the Parents Television Council, for one, doesn’t expect much difference with a Democratic-controlled Congress. “There is a commitment to our issues across the board,” says PTC government-affairs chief Dan Isett. “I don’t anticipate any of that is going to change.”
One veteran lobbyist agrees: “I don’t see any change. Politically, it’s a loser issue for anyone who defends the broadcaster side.”
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