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Rollback Rolls

Congress over the weekend was moving toward a final vote on legislation that would roll back the TV-station-ownership cap to 35% of TV households. Such a move would count as a big victory for media-dereg foes over the White House, Republican leaders, the FCC majority and the broadcast networks.

On Friday, House and Senate leaders were pushing to wrap up the large catch-all spending bill to which the rollback is attached before the Thanksgiving break. Despite hopes for a weekend vote, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) fretted that negotiations over other provisions of the omnibus bill, unrelated to media ownership, might drag on long enough to postpone the vote until today.

Last-minute efforts

Thanks to the delay, opponents of the rollback were not ready to concede defeat. Industry sources say that, right up until the moment the package is ready for votes on the House and Senate floors, President Bush will try to pry the rollback out of the bill, which funds the FCC and many other agencies.

But Stevens discounted that strategy's chances. "Right now, in this process, it's the final word," he told reporters Wednesday.

Dereg propoents at the FCC last week shrugged off the pending vote as a largely symbolic gesture.

"It's a feel-good for those in Congress opposed to deregulation," said one FCC aide.

Supporters of the rollback declared victory over the White House, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) after negotiators from both sides of Capitol Hill last Wednesday night agreed to retain the provision restoring the 35% through fiscal 2004.

The decision also is a win for the National Association of Broadcasters and network affiliates, which fear that a higher cap will hand the major broadcast nets more power to dictate terms of affiliation contracts. NAB officials said last week that they will withhold comment until the final votes.

Majority leaders from both houses of Congress have been under the gun to get a vote and agreed to retain the rollback after Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a foe of media deregulation, promised not to push a separate measure reversing an FCC decision allowing media companies to own broadcast stations and newspapers in the same market. Dorgan also backed the 35% rollback.

He said, however, that he and House allies will continue to pursue a "legislative veto" of other broadcast-ownership deregulation that the FCC approved June 2.

That measure passed the Senate, but House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is believed to have successfully blocked a vote by his members.

President Bush has threatened to veto any legislation reversing the FCC's recent broadcast deregulation, and Delay and Frist had angled to eliminate the national-cap rollback, which was inserted into the spending bill by Stevens, Dorgan and others on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Dorgan and his allies predict Bush won't veto the omnibus spending bill over the FCC provision. However, that doesn't mean the issue is dead quite yet. Bush is reported to be seriously considering a veto of the overall bill because another provision rewrites new overtime-pay rules.

On the other hand, the entire bill also could collapse because of disputes between lawmakers over funding levels for some government programs.

There is little immediate effect of rolling back the TV cap. Already, the Philadelphia federal appeals court has stayed the FCC decision to raise the limit to 45% of TV households pending the outcome of legal challenges to that and the other changes to broadcast-ownership limits approved June 2. Oral argument in the case is scheduled for Feb. 11, with a decision expected a couple months later.

Fox and CBS would have to sell a station or two to comply, but no other network is near enough the national cap to be affected.

The war goes on

Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman vowed that the effort to stop media deregulation won't stop with the cap.

"This is only the latest of a series of rejections," he told a rally in Philadelphia Thursday. "The White House and Chairman Powell underestimated public opposition. They underestimated congressional opposition. We're going to win."

Besides the higher national cap, Schwartzman and other activists oppose such elements of the FCC's June 2 vote as relaxed limits on the number of TV stations that one company can own in a market and joint ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers in the same market.