Buoyed by recent votes on the House floor, the powerful National Association of Broadcasters has decided to resume participation in the battle to curb the size of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
Two weeks ago, the House voted to reinstate a federal rule that limits to 35% the number of U.S. TV households that a TV station group can reach with its signals.
On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission voted to raise the cap to 45% — over the opposition of hundreds of NAB TV station members, which are independent affiliates of the Big Four and fear the networks would gain additional leverage.
Sees 35% law
It now appears, at least to the NAB, that legislation to reinstate the 35% cap can become law free of amendments designed to soften or scuttle other FCC deregulatory moves supported by the broadcaster group.
"We've always supported the 35% legislation," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said last week. "We will support this bill until it becomes loaded down with additional amendments."
NAB had to sit out the House floor debate, having announced July 10 that it would not support legislation seeking to modify any of the FCC's new ownership policies. They included the new 45% cap, as well as measures allowing TV stations and newspapers to combine in the same market for the first time since 1975.
The NAB's sudden neutrality came at a price: Hundreds of TV station members defected, saying they would continue to fight for 35% legislation, and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), both staunch supporters of the 35% cap, issued statements critical of the NAB's withdrawal.
The NAB switched from active support for 35% cap legislation to total neutrality because NAB president Edward Fritts — and a board majority within the trade group — feared such a measure could not pass on its own.
Key house votes
The House vote on July 23 proved the NAB wrong in that assessment.
"Circumstances change during the legislative process. It appears to us that the prospects for passing a stand-alone, clean 35% bill have improved," Wharton said.
The House voted 400-21 to pass a spending bill that reinstated the 35% limit for one year. Importantly, by a 254-174 vote, the House rejected an amendment by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) that would have eviscerated the FCC's entire deregulatory package.
Although the House is on record in support of a modest rollback, the Senate is expected to vote on a resolution in early September that would overturn the FCC's entire ruling.
"We believe the votes exist to pass this resolution of disapproval in the Senate. We can't predict how many votes we will receive," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the resolution's chief sponsor, last Tuesday.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), joining Dorgan at a press conference last Tuesday, promised to fight a White House veto designed to protect the FCC rules.
"I want to make the record very clear: I will do everything I could to override a veto in this area, because I think it would be a mistake," Lott said at a Capitol Hill press conference.
Two days before the House vote, the White House threatened a veto in a letter from Office of Management Budget Director Joshua Bolton to House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who supports allowing the Big Four to acquire more stations and voted against the spending bill with the 35% cap.
"The president has to show support for the commission," Lott said.
Both Lott and Dorgan said they had policy differences with FCC chairman Michael Powell, not personal ones, and said they did not want to see him resign over the media-ownership dispute.
"This is not just about Powell," Lott said, adding, "I am not advocating that he resign. He may feel a need to do it, but that's his call."
Dorgan predicted that following passage of his resolution, the House would not limit its rebuke of the FCC to just retention of the 35% cap.
"Clearly, if this comes to the floor of the House for a vote, the House of Representatives is going to vote to disapprove this rule," Dorgan said.
Powell, in an op-ed piece in last Monday's The New York Times, questioned whether opponents of the FCC's ownership rules were motivated "by a desire to affect content" on television.
"It's an absurd proposition," Dorgan said. "I have no idea what he ate for breakfast before he wrote that. This has nothing to do with content. It has to do with diversity of ownership."
Separate from action on Capitol Hill, the NAB announced plans to take the FCC to court over the agency's decision to bar the four highest-rated stations in any market from combining among themselves. The Network Affiliated Stations Alliance (NASA), which represents the affiliates of ABC, NBC and CBS, is planning to sue the FCC over raising the cap to 45%.