House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) didn't wait for the type to be set before vowing to kill a Senate bill that would restore many of the media-ownership restrictions jettisoned by the FCC on June 2.
"We have absolutely no intention of taking up the Senate bill," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson shortly after the Senate Commerce Committee's June 19 approval of legislation drafted by Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "This has become a political soap opera, and, given the chance, Tauzin intends to cancel its run."
Tauzin's staff also predicted that end runs around his committee by the use of an appropriations bill or a "legislation veto" would also be shot down. "We're lining up our ducks," Johnson said.
Whether Tauzin will need to bother is the real question. The bill that Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) committee approved last week could not have been better designed to raise the ire of nearly every sector of the broadcast industry. Networks, major TV affiliates, and radio groups all have incentive to kill the bill and will lobby aggressively against it.
With a calendar heavy with votes on Medicare, the budget, prescription drugs and other contentious issues, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is said by Washington sources to be of no mind to bring another battle to the Senate floor. Officially, however, a Frist spokesman said it's too early to predict whether the bill will reach the floor.
Still, opponents of media consolidation were celebrating last week and vowed to push their bill all the way to the president's desk. The vote "is a strong, bipartisan repudiation of the FCC's disastrous ruling," said Hollings, the Commerce Committee's ranking Democrat.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps called on the FCC to suspend implementation of its new rules "in light of the very real possibility that Congress will reverse the commission's vote."
Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, predicted that Tauzin must cave in to members of his own committee that have sponsored rollback legislation. "This was the most significant defeat that the nation's biggest media companies have witnessed in decades. Given our momentum, even Billy Tauzin may not be able to save the industry."
Within the Senate Commerce Committee, certainly, support for rolling back the FCC vote was overwhelming.
Measures to reinstate the 35% cap on national TV-household reach and the prohibition on crossownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market passed by voice vote, which means that so many committee members expressed support there was no need to tally votes.
The panel also voted to make Fox and CBS, which have 39% and 41% reach, respectively, to divest enough stations to comply with the 35% cap within one year of the bill's enactment. Other provisions would:
- Force radio-station groups to break up local clusters that don't comply with the FCC's recently tightened local-ownership rules.
- Require the FCC to hold hearings in at least five different geographic regions before changing media-ownership rules in the future.
- Clarify that the commission has authority to tighten, as well as relax, ownership rules when necessary to protect the public interest.
Missing from the expected amendments was a call to eliminate the UHF discount. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is expected push for killing the discount when the committee votes this week on a separate bill to reauthorize the FCC. Eliminating the UHF discount would push not just Fox and CBS over the national cap but other broadcasters, such as Paxson and Sinclair, as well.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which supports a return to the 35% cap, nevertheless vowed to fight the legislation because of the prohibition on newspaper crossownership and forced divestiture of some radio groups' stations. "NAB will strongly oppose this legislation," said President Eddie Fritts.