Support Builds for 45% Cap


As FCC Republicans coalesce around a hike in the national broadcast-ownership cap to 45% of TV households, supporters and opponents of the idea are mounting desperate lobbying efforts to either bolster or derail the idea.

Last week, it was the National Association of Broadcasters, resisting a higher cap, and CBS, Fox and NBC, all backing a larger number, loudly made their cases to the regulators. The Bush Administration also weighed in with its first appeal: In a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans called on the commission to stick to a June 2 date for completing a review of all broadcast-ownership rules, which includes the cap and other major regulations.

"The current review is the most thorough and comprehensive in the 60-year history of the media-ownership rules," Evans wrote.

The missive comes as deregulation critics at the FCC and on Capitol Hill are pressuring Powell to slow down. The latest call for delay came from Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who criticized the June 2 deadline in an op-ed piece in the April 24 San Francisco Chronicle.

There was also a little surprise: Dallas-based station group and newspaper owner Belo Corp. bucked its broadcast brethren by dropping opposition to a hike in the national TV-ownership cap. In return, though, Belo wants FCC commitments to rein in abusive tactics allegedly committed by major networks in their relations with affiliates.

"The time has come for proponents of divergent opinions to coalesce around a rational revision of these long-outdated" broadcast-ownership rules, Belo Chairman Robert Decherd wrote to Powell in a letter that became public last week. Endorsing a 45% cap on one company's TV-household reach, he said, "All parties need to make reasonable concessions."

Belo is on the NAB board and is a member of the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance; both groups are leading the fight to retain the 35% cap. Few TV NAB/NASA members appear to be following Belo's lead. The trade groups themselves are as adamant as ever that a higher cap would allow major broadcast networks to buy enough stations around the country that other station owners would have little leverage to elicit favorable affiliation agreements with the nets.

Despite Belo's defection, NASA Chairman and Post-Newsweek Stations President Alan Frank said the determination to preserve today's limit is "stronger than ever" among most station groups.

Like a few other groups, Belo is less concerned about networks' leverage than about winning the right to set up TV/newspaper combos and doesn't want deregulation on that front to get delayed by continuing fights over the national TV cap.

Other rules being examined are local limits on TV duopolies, crossownership of TV/radio combos, and multiple ownership of leading broadcast networks.

Belo's Decherd suggested that the national ownership cap be increased on condition that the FCC put a stop to network abuses alleged by TV-group owners negotiating affiliation agreements. Affiliates' biggest compliant is that networks prevent them exercising their right to reject net programs.

For their part, the big broadcast networks denounced affiliates' attempts to paint them as bullies. NAB/NASA arguments are three "red herrings" that are "unsupported, ill-considered and irrelevant," Fox, CBS, and NBC told the FCC last week.