Media faces political scrutiny

Democrats plan a slew of hearings

Get ready for a slew of congressional fact-finding hearings on media issues, regardless of whether relevant legislation has even been proposed, members and staff of the Democratically controlled Congress told the National Assn. of Broadcasters.

At NAB’s state leadership conference in D.C. on Tuesday, officials from Capitol Hill said digital television transition, the future of radio, the proposed XM-Sirius merger, video franchise reform and broadband deployment will be the focus of hearings this spring in the House Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Telecom and the Internet.

Unlike the GOP majority that preceded them, Dems will not wait for a specific bill to be drafted before examining these issues. And the hearings are not likely to be all industry-friendly.

Indeed, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) — who owns five broadcast stations — cautioned his audience, saying that when it comes to direct-to-consumer drug advertising, “Keep your hand next to the panic button. Advertising is likely to get blamed for everything. Forget personal responsibility. Paternal government is back.”

But Walden wasn’t any kinder toward the GOP majority in charge of the Federal Communications Commission. Walden voted to increase indecency fines tenfold last year, but he said the FCC’s “patchwork quilt of crazy decisions” that have “no logic” has opened up the possibility that the Supreme Court could throw out the FCC’s indecency authority altogether. (Three of the four major networks have challenged the FCC indecency regime in court.)

Walden also advised broadcasters to expect Democrats to pressure the industry to decrease violent content and increase children’s educational programming.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the telecom and Internet subcommittee, promised “to ensure that broadcasters are at the center of the digital revolution.” He said broadcasters are still central among all the new-media forms proliferating as sources of information and entertainment.

Markey’s subcommittee will hold its first hearing on March 7, focusing on the XM-Sirius merger and other radio-related issues.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, promised to focus on “protecting disenfranchised viewers,” referring to households with only over-the-air TV sets, which are at risk of going dark following the February 2009 cutoff date for analog signal broadcasting. The previous Congress approved money that will partially subsidize a digital-to-analog converter box for those households. Dingell believes the subsidy should be full.

If the converter box plan doesn’t ensure that all TVs will continue to operate after the transition, Dingell warned, “There will be a day of reckoning in Washington, and people will be voted off the island.”

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