Broadcasters Catching Hill

Still fuming over the FCC's June 2 relaxation of TV- and radio-ownership limits, lawmakers last week sharply criticized broadcasters and threatened new laws governing everything from indecency to license renewals.

The rhetoric was harsh, even by Congressional standards, both during House floor debate over a broadcast-ownership provision in an FCC spending bill and later in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on localism and broadcasters' public-interest obligations. The broadcast provision would reinstate the 35% cap on one station group's national TV-household reach. The FCC had raised it to 45%.

During the floor debate, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) accused the FCC of trying to impose a centralized "Saddam-style information system in the United States."

Woolsey was speaking in favor of an unsuccessful amendment that would have gone beyond the 35% cap to restore other FCC ownership limits. The amendment was defeated 254-174, but not before legislators got their licks in.

Adding more fire, so to speak, was Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), co-author of the failed amendment, who predicted "people with pitchforks and torches" in front of the Capitol if the amendment was defeated.

The Senate hearing a day later contained plenty of venting as well (see box), with Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) saying that FCC Chairman Michael Powell "had the bit in his teeth to ruin a regulatory commission."

Broadcast programming came in for heavy criticism, particularly an episode of Fox's Keen Eddie
featuring a scene involving horse semen and a prostitute, which was even more troubling to at least one senator because its lead-in was the teen-targeted American Juniors.

Beyond talk, there was some action. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) promised to revisit the low-power–FM issue in light of a study showing that more such stations may be added without undue interference to full-power stations.

McCain also pledged to reintroduce a bill next week to mandate candidate- and issue-centered broadcasts in the run-up to an election and vouchers for political ads, likely paid for by a broadcast user fee.

McCain and Hollings talked of possible actions, including reduced license-renewal periods and tougher indecency rules.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps told the Senate panel he would call for an FCC proceeding to gauge the effects of consolidation on broadcast indecency. He said the heads of the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association should discuss ways to cut down on indecency.

Copps also gave hope to producers who want to limit broadcast networks' ownership interest in prime time programming, saying the FCC "must confront the substantial reduction in independent programming."

Sitting in defense of the industry at the hearing were Sinclair's Barry Faber and WPVI-TV Philadelphia General Manager Dave Davis. Davis detailed a list of public-service programs and initiatives that generally drew the approval of his audience, and Faber fielded most of the criticism, primarily directed at Sinclair's centralcasting news strategy.

Faber argued that combining local stories with ones produced and fed from the company's Baltimore hub had allowed it to add news staffers and newscasts in markets where they would otherwise be infeasible. Neither Hollings nor Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) appeared satisfied by Faber's explanations. Responding to Faber's assertion that Sinclair had added over 200 people to its news operation, Hollings said, "They must be turning into witnesses to come to Washington because they're not putting on the news."

Additional reporting by Bill McConnell

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.