WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has had better days, and so have the titans of the broadcasting industry.
Ignoring a veto threat from President Bush, the House turned up the pressure Wednesday on Powell and the White House, voting to overturn a key portion of the FCC’s recent media deregulation, which hands the nation’s media giants the power to grow even larger.
Critics of the new rules in the House attached the rollback language to a spending bill, circumventing normal procedure and House GOP leaders determined to block their efforts.
If it survives a joint conference with the Senate, the action would scale back the most sweeping and hotly contested changes to rules governing media concentration in recent memory. It would also set up a confrontation with Bush, who has pledged to make it the first veto of his administration.
“The new FCC media ownership rules more accurately reflect the changing media landscape and the current state of network station ownership, while still guarding against undue concentration in the marketplace,” the White House said in a statement.
Media congloms aren’t shrugging off the events in Washington as mere political posturing and realize there is a real chance that the rules they have fought so hard for could be overturned.
“The back door efforts by the Appropriations Committee to cut the FCC funds needed to implement these rules is extremely disappointing to us,” said NBC lobbyist Bob Okun, arguing that the new regs are a necessary step to provide the industry much-needed regulatory relief.
Specifically, the House action would deny the FCC any funds to implement its new 45% cap on the TV audience one company can reach, effectively returning to the prior 35% limit.
If the ownership cap is rolled back to 35%, News Corp. and Viacom could be forced to sell a small number of TV stations.
Intent on updating the rules to reflect the modern Internet age, Powell pushed the new regs through on June 2, despite a chorus of criticism from both the right and the left warning that the action would result in a rush of mega-mergers and the loss of diversity of views, ideas and genuine local news.
At last count, an unprecedented 2.3 million citizens had registered their comments about the issue with the FCC as activists and interest groups continue to fan the opposition flames.
All this week, groups such as MoveOn.org, the Consumers’ Union, Common Cause and Free Press orchestrated a massive call-in campaign to Capitol Hill.
After the House vote, Powell issued his latest defense of the media rules, arguing that the new regs would allow companies that already exceed the 35% cap to purchase only a handful of additional stations, what he said amounted to approximately half a percent of stations nationwide.
“Our democracy is strong,” he said in a statement. “It is not threatened by half a percent. It would be irresponsible to ignore the diversity of viewpoints provided by cable, satellite and the Internet.”
Powell also repeated his commitment to the FCC ideals of localism, competition and diversity.
GOP largely AWOL
But Powell and his two GOP colleagues at the FCC were no-shows at a Senate hearing devoted to defining the public-interest obligations of broadcasters, which occurred just hours before the final House vote Wednesday.
Aside from the committee chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and a brief appearance by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Republican senators were AWOL as well, bolstering perceptions that those supporting the FCC action are feeling the heat as momentum in Congress grows to overturn the new rules.
McCain invited Powell, as well as GOP commissioners Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy, to participate in a discussion of the public-interest obligations of broadcasters, but all three declined, citing prior commitments.
Powell’s spokesman said his boss was with his family. Abernathy had a prior commitment and Martin was in Montana speaking to the state’s telecom association.
In recent days, Powell has tried to knock down rumors that he has grown weary of all the sniping and plans to ankle the FCC post soon — a claim his spokesman vehemently denies.
“The idea that there is a controversial vote and suddenly he has to resign — people who say that don’t know him and don’t know what he has said, that he has an agenda for the fall,” his spokesman David Fiske said. “A lot is coming up on the broadband issue, and that is one of the centerpieces of his agenda. He has no plans to leave the commission.”
Fiske also said Powell’s decision to skip the Senate hearing had nothing to do with the House vote.
Powell is not the only one under the microscope these days. Activist groups unveiled a flurry of reports Wednesday taking big media companies to task on several fronts.
Disney is pols’ vault
Disney/ABC was the biggest political donor in the broadcasting category during the last five years, cutting $5 million in checks, according to a report by Common Cause, a D.C. political watchdog group. General Electric/NBC ranked second with $4.7 million in donations and News Corp./Fox came in third with $2.86 million.
The Alliance for Better Campaigns, a D.C. group promoting the idea of free airtime for candidates, charged broadcasters with “gouging political candidates on advertising rates.”
The study, “Profiteering on Democracy,” cites evidence that stations across the country jacked up prices of candidate ads by more than 50% in the two months before the 2002 election.
Broadcasters claimed that numerous factors explain the increased rates. The fall political campaign coincides with the launch of the new fall season for primetime entertainment programming, back-to-school advertising and the onset of the holiday season.
The Alliance dismisses these factors, citing a 2003 edition of the Marketer’s Research Guide to Media showing that all TV advertisers were subject to an average increase of 15% from the July 1 through Sept. 30 period to the Oct. 1 through Dec. 31 period.
During the hearing, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, also highlighted a study of local TV news coverage of the 2002 election.
The research, conducted by USC’s Lear Center, involved analyzing the campaign coverage each night from 5 to 11:30 p.m. over the seven weeks leading up to election day on 122 top-rated stations in 50 markets around the country.
Among its findings:
- Only 44% of more than 10,000 broadcasts contained any campaign coverage at all. (In other words, six out of 10 top-rated news broadcasts contained no coverage.)
- The average campaign story lasted less than 90 seconds.
- Only 14% of campaign stories were focused on local races.
- Campaign ads outnumbered campaign stories by nearly four to one.
(Pamela McClintock in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)