The House of Representatives on Aug. 4 voted 305-117 for landmark telecom reform legislation, but not before Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) added V-chip lingo and curbed broad media concentration provisions supported by GOP leaders.

The margin of the House vote – coupled with the Senate’s earlier 81-18 vote for a similar telecom bill – seemingly represents a veto-proof majority to override a threatened derailment of the bill by President Clinton. On the eve of the Aug. 4 vote, Vice President Al Gore said the bill had been “sold to the highest bidder in every telecommunications industry” and was “abhorrent to the public interest.”

The day’s drama centered mostly on fast parliamentary footwork by Markey to ensure passage of the V-chip amendment he sponsored with conservative Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). The proposal requires insertion of computer circuitry in TV sets, coupled with a voluntary MPAA like rating system of TV shows that would allow parents to zap out objectionable programming.

House GOP leaders cooked up an alternative plan offered by Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to deny a straight up-or-down vote on the Markey/Burton V-chip. The Coburn proposal embraced private sector solutions to TV violence, including a $2 million technology fund announced by the four broadcast networks last week.

Coburn’s amendment passed by a margin of 222-201, prompting celebration among House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas) and others. But the GOP party quickly turned into a wake, as Markey caught Armey’s army flat-footed by offering a “recommittal motion” that forced lawmakers into a vote solely on the V-chip.

On the second vote, the V-chip passed by a tally of 224-199 to the strain of giddy Democrats chanting “Defense! Defense!”

Lobbyists attributed Markey’s V-chip victory to sloppy preparation by GOP leaders. “The motion to recommit should have been anticipated,” said one industry source.

‘Quick fix’

Motion Picture Assn. of America said Congress’s embrace of the “quick fix” of the V-chip means lawmakers have entered “dangerous territory that the founding fathers wisely declared unsuitable for government intervention.”

If the V-chip vote weren’t bad enough for network lobbyists, the webs suffered another drubbing by Markey on the issue of media concentration.

35% solution

The telecom bill that emerged from committee lifted from 25% to 50% the national TV audience reach of a single broadcaster. Markey’s amendment rolled back the increase to 35%, and retained a ban against common ownership of a cable system and broadcast station in a local market.

The Markey amendment passed by a surprisingly easy margin of 228-195, with some 60 Republicans defecting from GOP leadership.

Affiliate groups that lobbied hard for the 35% cap hailed the vote. Ben Tucker, head of the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, said the vote “shows the commitment of Congress to localism and diversity in our national broadcast system.”

Industry lobbyists attributed the media concentration rollback to strong lobbying from small market TV stations, coupled with near-united Democratic opposition to the growing influence of Rupert Murdoch.

The legislation was hardly all bad news for the networks. It relaxes a host of other media concentration restrictions and also permits broadcasters a free second channel as they shift from analog to digital delivery.

Cable TV operators have a big reason to crow following the vote. Under the House bill, cablers who have been under the yoke of FCC rate regulation would have price controls lifted on the expanded basic tier of service within 15 months. For small operators, cable rate regulation is lifted immediately upon enactment of the bill.

Cable rereg cruises

Markey’s bid to limit cable price increases to hikes in inflation was defeated by a whopping margin of 275-148, with more than half of all Democrats voting to deregulate cable rates. With the vote, the House seemed to accept the Gospel of John Malone: that Congress had no business reregulating the industry in 1992.

The House and Senate bills now move to a conference committee to resolve differences in the legislation. Both Houses will vote on the bill that emerges from conference before the legislation is sent to President Clinton.

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