GOP hears net cry

Some pols urge looser TV ownership regs

WASHINGTON — Network arguments that the national cap on TV station ownership should be lifted were received warmly by Republicans at a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Several key legislators, including Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Commerce Committee chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.), said it’s time for the FCC to take a close look at allowing networks to buy more stations.

The current rule limits broadcasters to stations that reach no more than a combined 35% of the national audience. While the networks would like to see the cap lifted, many station groups, led by the National Assn. of Broadcasters, say any increase would upset the balance of power between networks and affils. The affils worry that if the networks gain more control of their distribution system, it will decrease their bargaining power when it comes to programming and compensation.

News Corp. president and chief operating officer Peter Chernin told the subcommittee that the station group owners who oppose ownership relaxation are large, healthy companies that are just trying to claim endangered species status. “It’s all about protecting one set of powerful and profitable broadcasters,” said Chernin, who pointed out that among the group owners who oppose ownership deregulation are major league media companies such as Cox, the Washington Post Co. and the New York Times Co.

Chernin may have also wanted to point out that while Cox, the Washington Post and New York Times oppose relaxation of the network ownership caps, they are simultaneously asking Congress to relax the ban on owning newspapers and TV stations in the same market.

Representing the station groups was Cox Broadcasting’s Andrew Fisher, who testified on behalf of the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance. Fisher argued that further relaxation of national ownership rules would reverse “a half century of communications policy” by allowing the creation of “mega-companies.” He added that network complaints of declining profits are the result of their own business decisions. He pointed out that many networks have gone on spending sprees during the last several years when they have launched large cable networks and Internet ventures.

One of the strongest voices speaking out against any further deregulation was Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Markey called the FCC’s recent decision to allow broadcasters to own two stations in the same market the biggest mistake since the agency decided, during the Reagan administration, to throw out the children’s television rules. Markey said any further relaxation would do nothing but create more “communications cannibalism.”