Senate control up in air

The roller-coaster political ride of the last two years got even hairier for Hollywood Tuesday night as control of the U.S. Senate remained hanging in the balance.

By late evening it was still unclear whether Republicans had managed to wrest the upper chamber from the Democrats — a victory that would return key committee chairmanships affecting showbiz to GOP hands.

But Republicans did manage to hold on to two vulnerable Senate seats, in New Hampshire and North Carolina, and snatched a victory in Georgia from an incumbent Democrat. The GOP was trending toward victory in several other close races at press time.

Democrats did hold onto one of their weaker seats, in New Jersey, but the overall battle for control remained unresolved.

In Washington, Hollywood lobbyists said they were resigned to the fact that it may be days or weeks before they know which party will control the U.S. Senate.

The foremost issue on Hollywood’s mind is how to protect its content in the new digital age — and the town’s top media players desperately need D.C.’s help in establishing the rules that will govern access to that content.

If the Republicans manage to up their tally by just one in the Senate, they would effectively be able to control the key Commerce and Judiciary Committees.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has traditionally not been focused on Hollywood or sympathetic to its causes, would, for example, become chair of the Commerce Committee. He held the post under Clinton and in the first few months of Bush’s presidency.

The Judiciary Committee, now under Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would once again be run by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who champions the rights of artists over the claims of the major media congloms.

Because McCain is less impressed with Hollywood’s sense of its own importance, the town could have a tougher time in its campaign to curb digital piracy.

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) is currently chair of the Commerce Committee. This year, he introduced a bill that would require the computer and TV manufacturing biz to install devices to stop illegal downloads of Hollywood content.

If McCain takes over the post, he could stall passage of the bill by refusing to take a Committee vote.

McCain could also take a different tack toward the broadcasting biz.

The solon recently proposed that broadcasters pay a spectrum fee that would be used by federal candidates to buy airtime for political ads.

This election season alone, political ad revenues are expected to top $1 billion.

McCain says broadcasters are obligated to promote the democratic process, since they use the public airwaves at no charge. He believes TV stations shouldn’t be allowed to reap such huge amounts from political advertising.

Despite these possible shifts in the political landscape, some veteran pundits downplayed the effects of a power transfer.

MPAA chairman Jack Valenti told Daily Variety that there would be at most only a one or two vote difference between the Senate as it stands now and what it might look like, under Republicans, in January. “We have friends on both sides of the aisle,” Valenti said.

Despite the fact that Hollywood itself is predominantly Democratic, the current crop of Tinseltown lobbyists is adept at working the political apparatus of both parties.

In fact, they had to do some quick gear-shifting as recently as early 2001 when Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords unexpectedly declared himself an independent, making the Democrats the effective majority in that chamber.

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