WASHINGTON — The big four nets suffered a major blow Wednesday when a key House committee voted to block federal regulators from letting them buy more television stations despite a Bush administration veto threat.
In an overwhelming 40 to 25 vote, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee voted to partially revoke a significant component of the Federal Communications Commission’s new media ownership rules. Spending panel attached language to a bill denying the FCC any funds to implement a rule allowing one company to own a group of TV stations with a potential audience reach of 45%.
“I don’t want ownership factors to get in the way of districts like mine from being able to have their own cultural attitudes,” said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who wrote the legislation.
Before the FCC acted June 2, media companies had the possibility of reaching only 35% of households, a cap supported by smaller broadcasters as well as a wide variety of activists and media watchdog groups.
The action is a boon for critics of the FCC’s new media ownership rules and puts more pressure on House GOP leaders and President Bush, who have vowed to block any kind of effort to roll back the new regs.
Indeed, during Wednesday’s committee action, Appropriations chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to defeat the measure, telling them that Bush has pledged to veto it.
Debate quickly turned to lawmakers’ gripes about television and the nets’ control over what local stations air. Obey specifically mentioned primetime broadcasts of Victoria’s Secret models and other programming family groups argue is inappropriate for kids.
The committee defeated an effort by Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) to roll back a much broader swath of the new FCC regs.
Support for a more expanded rollback is much stronger in the Senate, where FCC critics are pursuing various legislative strategies to gut most of the media ownership rules. The upper chamber is also expected to use the spending process to pursue the rollback. If it passes, the two sides would hash out any differences during a House-Senate conference of the bill.
Network reps were stung by the strong vote in favor of returning the 45% cap to 35% and expressed serious disappointment in Congress’ willingness to meddle in FCC affairs.
Dozens of station managers and lobbyists for the big four nets, as well as Telemundo, fanned out on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to press lawmakers to oppose the measure and any future effort to roll back other parts of the new media ownership regs.
They also attempted to refute claims that network-owned stations are less connected to local communities and have a difficult time preempting network programming to reflect the tastes and values of local areas.
“We’re disappointed that Congress has taken this step on a day that all our station managers are in Washington to tell members what great stewards they are in their local communities,” said News Corp./Fox spokesman Andrew Butcher.
Mike Regan, News Corp.’s top lobbyist, said he was glad to hear about Bush’s veto threat.
“I’m encouraged that the administration is engaged,” he said. “This debate has gotten off-kilter. It’s become the big media giants, and our local owned-and-operated stations are being unfairly tarred.”
Network reps said they were surprised about Congress’ willingness to interfere with an independent agency’s decisions.
“The FCC’s decision was incremental deregulation at best,” Bob Okun, NBC’s top lobbyist said in a statement. “We are very disappointed that the Appropriations Committee is deciding major communications policy, which should be left to the Commerce Committee.”