May 24, 2003

Just when you thought it was safe to say the debate around the FCC media ownership decision was done, the debate lives. Late Thursday the Senate Commerce Committee threw the June 1 ruling into a tizzy when it voted to overturn a key part of the new ownership rules.

When the FCC made its new broad ruling on June 1, which basically gave media owners in every industry but radio more power to buy more properties, one of the key components was the television ownership cap. Under previous rules, television owners could own no more than 35 percent reach into a particular marketplace. New FCC rules upped it to 45 percent. The Commerce Committee, in a move called "stunning" in some reports, rolled it back to 35 percent.

"The Senate is angry and it is letting the FCC know it is an agency that acted arbitrarily and capriciously," said Fritz Messere, professor and chair of communication studies at SUNY Oswego. "The FCC is being told that it's a creation of Congress, but that doesn't mean it will get its way."

In fact, according to Messere, it probably won't. In order for the Commerce Committee to win at this effort and roll back the ownership cap, several things would have to happen. First, the Senate would have to pass the bill. So would the House. Then it would have to survive a Presidential veto, which is unlikely.

Still, the action could have an effect, according to Messere.

"If I were a media company I would do a deal now," said Messere. He said he expects many media companies to sense that the rules the FCC passed on June 1 should be acted on just in case an unpredictable turn takes place in Congress.

Other observers think the Senate action can be a catalyst for more court and congressional challenges. The FCC section on cross-ownership, which allows newspaper companies to buy TV or radio stations in one rule that is repeatedly mentioned as facing potential challenges.

"This Senate vote stirs the pot," aid Wayne Crews, director of technology policy at Washington DC's Cato Institute. "It has energized a lot of groups that were opposed to the rules relaxation in the first place."

By John Gaffney
Courtesy of http://www.mediapost.com

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