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Look What Commerce Dragged In

We were contemplating lending our support to Sen. McCain's FCC-reauthorization bill. Its centerpiece, at one time at least, was extending the recovery time between media-reg reviews from two years to five. That has been changed to four to make sure that every new administration has some opportunity to review the rules. OK, we could have lived with that change.

Given that the FCC's June 2 revamp of the broadcast-ownership rule, months overdue, is far from a done deal and must be repeated in as little as six months, there is clearly not enough time between reviews to gauge the impact of changes. Giving the commission breathing room seems a no-brainer.

That was two weeks ago, before the bill became a reregulatory lint roller, picking up all sorts of extraneous bits from legislators trying to "tidy up" the FCC's rules to fit their own sense of what the broadcast media should look and sound like.

Some of those extraneous amendments were withdrawn last week; some were not. Among the latter were toughening indecency laws to the satisfaction of Sen. Ernest Hollings and multiplying the fines by a factor of 10. Perhaps that will prompt broadcasters to fight the fines rather than pay them, although we assume that is not the outcome Hollings has in mind. The committee also voted to scrap the UHF discount that the FCC, after 20 months of study, voted just three weeks ago to preserve. In doing so, the FCC cited both a continuing technical disadvantage, although that in itself was not persuasive, and the advantage it gave to those trying to launch new networks. The latter would potentially aid entrepreneurs, including minorities, as well as providing additional competition to established network voices. For that reason, we see no reason to overrule the FCC.

Among the withdrawn amendments were ones paving the way for possible local-programming quotas and de facto public-interest–programming quotas for stations. They will all get a hearing in early July, however, and could reappear in some form before a full Senate vote on the bill. In its present form, we vote no.

Fox Lines Up

Maybe the DTV transition will happen after all. Fox, which has remained on the broadcast HDTV sidelines for the most part, last week told the FCC it will deliver half its schedule in high-def by some time next year. But wait, there's more. It is also planning to team with a set manufacturer to try to drive DTV-set sales by trumpeting the availability of great programming. Quite a turnaround for the poster child for 480p. The one caveat was that the network wants copy protection in place to backstop all this 720p glory. Fair enough. Fox may appear to be coming a little late to the party, but fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, not a lot of guests have shown up yet. To drive those guests into the tent, more must-see HDTV is vital. Rupert-come-lately or not, Fox is a welcome addition.