Capitol Hill script put into rewrite

Demos shift into power as Jeffords bolts GOP

WASHINGTON — And here everybody thought the political dust had finally settled, the race won.

Think again. Hollywood lobbyists, along with everybody else in the nation’s capitol, were in shock Tuesday over news that Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.) will bolt the GOP, giving Democrats surprise control of the U.S. Senate.

If scenario plays out, shift in power means Dems will be put in charge of key panels overseeing the entertainment industry, chiefly, the commerce and judiciary committees. Democrats lost control of the Senate in 1994.

“It’s a bit stunning, in that it came a bit out of the blue,” one Hollywood lobbyist said. “To pretend as if something significant wasn’t happening would be foolish.”

For the media/entertainment world, the most immediate impact could be felt today, over President Bush’s three nominees to the Federal Communications Commission. The Senate Commerce Committee — still led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — was still scheduled as of Wednesday evening to confirm the three nominees this morning.

Originally, the plan was for the full Senate to vote on the nominees sometime later today. That vote could easily get held up by the chaos caused by a switch in party alignments.

No one was making any final bets, however, since Jeffords is not expected to announce his decision until this morning.

And obviously his defection would be a bitter slap for Bush. If Jeffords does abandon the GOP, the Senate is likely to grind to a halt while it works out the organizational kinks — this after the delay in congressional business caused by the endless 2000 presidential contest.

“All of this is just going to make everything more complicated,” one network exec said. “It ups the ante and makes business more difficult.”

Switch a mixed bag

Some Hollywood superstars may still be mourning the end of the Clinton era, but check with movie and TV execs, and they’ll tell you that it’s actually Senate Democrats who give them the most pain on the issue of content.

If the Senate does go Democratic, Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) would in all likelihood replace McCain as chair of Commerce. For years, Hollings has pushed legislation that would severely restrict when television shows that receiv an adult rating can be aired.

While McCain has led the charge against Hollywood on marketing of violent fare to America’s kids, he stayed away from legislation recently sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) that would give the Federal Trade Commission authority to go after entertainment companies for deceptive advertising.

No one thinks such legislation will ever pass out of Congress because of constitutional issues, but no one relishes the thought of Lieberman having more say and influence.

There’s a growing sentiment in Hollywood that Lieberman will begin to back off his entertainment crusade as he pursues a 2004 presidential bid–and the requisite funding. California in general and Hollywood in particular are longtime fund-raising strongholds, a point not lost on Lieberman.

Back on Capitol hill, another area where the tone might change if Dems take charge is media consolidation. McCain and other Republicans are advocates of deregulation, while Dems are more prone to support ownership rules.

Coincidentally, execs from the Big Four nets were on Capitol Hill Wednesday to educate lawmakers about the net-affil relationship and to answer concerns that the nets somehow hold undue influence over the affils.

CBS, Fox and NBC are asking a federal appeals court in Washington to overturn a broadcast ownership cap that prohibits a broadcaster from reaching more than 35% of the national audience. Affils want the cap left intact.

A net exec said the Capitol Hill meetings went well, despite the surreal atmosphere.

Copyright

In the copyright arena — a hot topic these days — Hollywood lobbyists say there is no great divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chair of the Judiciary Committee, has kept close track of the Napster matter, holding several hearings. He’s largely been sympathetic to Hollywood regarding intellectual property in the digital age, but so has Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is seen as a top contender to replace Hatch. By late Wednesday, rumors were circulating that Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) might compete with Leahy for the judiciary gavel.

“I think the mood is mixed. Hollywood stars are generally Democratic and liberal, so I think they are happy,” a lobbyist said. “Now, for the execs of the nets and studios, it’s more of a mixed bag.”

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