FCC opens up complaint to public comment

WASHINGTON — The Big Four networks go to Capitol Hill today to counter the notion that they’re the big, bad wolf trying to gobble up the affils.

Timing turns out to be opportune for the nets to plead their case. On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it will go ahead and put up for public comment a contentious complaint filed against the major nets by more than 600 ABC, CBS and NBC affils.

The wide-ranging affil complaint charges that they are being strong-armed by the nets on programming and other business deals and that lifting the broadcaster ownership cap — which prohibits any broadcaster from reaching more than 35% of the national audience — would only make matters worse. A federal appeals court in Washington D.C. is due to rule on the issue later this year.

CBS, Fox and NBC are furiously working to have the cap overturned. They received a confidence boost earlier this year when the same appeals court struck down a national cable ownership cap.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will meet with pols and staffers from the key committees overseeing the media industry, commerce and judiciary. NBC TV Network Division prexy Randy Falco will do most of the talking, according to an exec familiar with the lobbying campaign.

Execs said the purpose of today’s visit to Congress is to impress upon lawmakers that nets don’t get a free ride, and that affils make plenty of money. Networks will explain the basics — compensation, clearance, etc.

“Not all (congressional) staffers are familiar with the relationship. Half don’t know there even is compensation. We’re kind of doing a network 101 briefing,” one net lobbyist said.

Republican restraint

Big Four execs had hoped the FCC, led by new Republican topper Michael Powell, would stay away from the complaint filed against them in early March by the Networks Affiliated Stations Alliance (NASA).

In announcing the NASA inquiry Tuesday, the commission made it clear that the affils have scaled back their original complaint, which was filed in early May. Originally, NASA wanted the FCC to out-and-out punish the nets, including fines, if they were found to be in violation. But earlier this month, NASA said that it would be satisfied if there was simply a public inquiry, with no punitive measures attached. NASA could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

One network lobbyist characterized the FCC inquiry as benign.

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