The U.S. Senate passed an amendment to telecom reform legislation June 9 that eliminates all restrictions on the number of radio and TV stations that may be owned by a single company.
The amendment – offered by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) – caps at 35% the national TV audience reach of a broadcaster, up from the current level of 25%. The modification carries no such national audience limit for radio, although the proposal permits the FCC to block radio acquisitions that “harm competition.”
Current law bars broadcasters from owning more than 12 TV stations and/or 40 radio stations nationally.
The Dole-Daschle amendment was passed as part of a marathon debate that began June 7 on a massive overhaul of U.S. telecommuncations law. The debate is expected to continue for much of this week.
Also included in the Dole-Daschle package was a provision nixing price controls on the enhanced basic programming tier for small cable TV systems. A small cable operator is defined as a company serving fewer than 35,000 subscribers in one franchise area with fewer than 650,000 subscribers nationally.
The Dole-Daschle measure would lift FCC rate regulation of enhanced cable program tiers for large cablers whose rates as of June 1,1995, were below the national average.
Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pledged to offer an amendment this week to block broad cable-rate deregulation envisioned under Dole – Daschle. Leahy labeled the proposed cable dereg plan a “sweetheart deal” for an industry that was reregulated by Congress in 1992. Lieberman called the proposal “an outrageous consumer rip-off.”
Under the Lieberman-Leahy proposal, price controls would be lifted just for cable operators whose rates fall below the national average of rates charged when a cabler faces a competitive videoprogram provider. Lieberman and Leahy would also lift rate regulation on those cablers who face video delivery competition from a telephone company.
A similar proposal will be offered by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chris Shays (R-Conn.) when the telecom bill reaches the House floor.
National Cable Television Assn. prexy Decker Anstrom said the Lieberman-Leahy amendment “reflects the worn-out preference for federal regulation rather than competition.” Much of the Senate floor infopike debate last week involved telephone company issues, with broadcast and cable battles to come this week. Sens. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Lieberman have emerged as the staunchest foes of t he legislation.
Dorgan is expected to join Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in a bid to retain the 25% national TV ownership cap on broadcasters.
Meanwhile, lawmakers rejected by a 64-30 margin an amendment from Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) that would have allowed consumers to buy rather than continue renting cable set-top boxes.
And the White House sent word last week that it “strongly opposes” the Senate telecom bill, claiming the measure would leave cable customers “vulnerable to unchecked rate increases.”