Congress will pass sweeping telecom deregulation legislation this week. Or maybe not.

Confusion reigned supreme on Capitol Hill late last week as a House-Senate conference committee scrambled to bridge differences and vote on a final telecom package before law-makers ankle town Dec. 22 for the holiday recess.

Hollings pivotal

All sides agreed the fate of the bill hinged on the extent to which media ownership rules will be deregulated. That placed Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) in the position of playing Santa Claus or Grinch to the nation’s largest media moguls, whose lobbyists were working over-time last week to win special goodies in the bill.

Hollings’ clout stems mostly from his ties to the White House, where President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill on grounds that it allows too much media consolidation.

Midweek, House Republicans attempted to break the stalemate on the media ownership issue by floating a plan that:

* permits one broadcaster to own two TV stations in a market;

* would give the FCC the authority to allow a single broadcaster to own TV stations that reach more than 35% of the nation. Both the House and Senate bills lift from 25% to 35% the national TV ownership reach, but under the House GOP plan, the FCC could permit the 35% limit to be passed so long as media diversity is unharmed.

* would kill an FCC probe into whether its ownership attribution rules should be tightened. Critics of Fox say revisions are warranted to prevent the weblet from exploiting a loophole that allows it to increase ownership of TV stations;

* eliminates the law barring a company from owning a broadcast-cable combination in the same market. A similar FCC rule would be retained but be subject to review every two years; and

* permits one company to own more than one radio station in a market, so long as there are 10 other separately owned station in the top 25 markets, six in markets 25-100, or three in markets smaller than 100.

Lobbyists for network affiliates – who have fought strenuously against the nearly wholesale deregulation sought by the networks – immediately criticized the House GOP offer. Late in the week, there were reports that Hollings was willing to accept part of the House offer, but that he was demanding further curbs in rules that would ease local radio ownership.

Reports of a possible breakthrough on the oft-delayed telecom bill overshadowed the week’s other big news – the stunner from House telecom subcommittee chairman Jack Fields (R-Texas) that he’s leaving Congress after 1996 to spend more time with his family.

The timing of Fields’ announcement prompted a bit of head-scratching among Belt-way watchers, in part because the well-respected 43-year-old is the chief House architect of the telecom bill.

“It’s hard to believe that a man on the eve of establishing a legacy would disappear before the day is done,” one industry lobbyist said.

Fields, in reality, won’t “disappear” until 1996, when he’ll be replaced by either Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) or Billy Tauzin (R-La.) if the GOP retains control of Congress. But perception is what counts most in Washington, and Fields’ lame-duck status now means that if the telecom bill doesn’t pass this week – or if Clinton carries out the veto threat – Fields will likely have less influence on lawmakers and the corporate interests that drive telecommunications policy.

Fields, who’s been popular even among liberal Democrats such as Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), has been a faithful friend to broadcasters during his stay on Capitol Hill. He was an original advocate of retransmission consent, a 1992 Cable Act provision that allowed broadcasters to negotiate with cablers the terms for carriage of over-the-air TV signals.

More recently, Fields helped thwart plans advocated by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) calling for auctioning spectra set aside for broadcasters to convert to digital TV delivery. Fields also came out strongly against FCC chairman Reed Hundt’s plans for three-hour-a-week kidvid programming quotas for all commercial TV stations.

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