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Bush Expected to Sign 39% Bill

President Bush is expected to sign legislation approved by Congress Thursday that puts a firm cap on TV-station ownership by the country’s broadcasting giants.

The bill would bar a TV-station group from reaching more than 39% of TV households nationally. Last June, the Federal Communications Commission raised the cap to 45% from 35%, triggering a backlash on Capitol Hill that was fueled by the independent affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.

Unlike the old 35% cap and other media-ownership rules, the new legislation ensures that the 39% cap is not amendable by the FCC. The networks, however, can go to federal court to challenge its constitutionality.

None of the "Big Four" had responded to a reporter’s question about possible litigation by press time.

In a statement, National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts indicated that his trade group -- the most vocal proponent of the 35% cap -- was not totally confident that the fight was over.

"We’re pleased that the national television-ownership-cap issue appears to be resolved by the passage of this legislation," Fritts said.

The 39% cap was a compromise reached last November between the White House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

By pushing for 39%, the White House protected Viacom Inc. (owner of CBS Inc.) and News Corp. (owner of Fox Broadcasting Co.) from having to divest TV stations. Both companies were operating just below 39%.

After the FCC adopted the 45% cap, NBC, CBS and Fox sued to remove the cap in a case now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia that includes parties claiming that the FCC’s new rules were too deregulatory. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Feb. 11. The court placed the FCC rules on hold while litigation is pending.

The 39% legislation might not be the last word from Congress.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) spearheaded Senate adoption of a resolution last September that would have voided not just the 45% cap, but also rules allowing greater common ownership of TV stations, radio stations, newspapers and cable systems in the same local market. Dorgan’s resolution, which passed 55-40 in the Senate, never received a House vote.

In a prepared statement, Dorgan pledged to fight to roll back the FCC’s media rules. "If anyone thinks we’re going to fold our tent and go home, they can think again," he said.