Senate adds FCC rewrites

UHF, indecency, steeper fines among items voted on

WASHINGTON — Building on last week’s vote to gut major portions of the Federal Communications Commission’s media ownership rewrite, the Senate Commerce Committee took another swipe at the agency’s handiwork Thursday.

In yet another blow to the nets and big media congloms, the panel narrowly voted to eliminate the current 50% UHF discount. During the media ownership overhaul, consumer groups argued that the FCC should count UHF broadcasting stations the same way VHF stations are when it comes to determining audience reach for broadcast companies.

Provision, added to the FCC reauthorization bill by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), would force large media companies to sell off some stations in 2008, theoretically, after the conversion to high-definition TV is completed. It immediately would apply to any new station buys.

Revamping, adding rules

The committee also voted to toughen indecency rules, impose greater fines and change the FCC’s biennial review of media ownership rules to four years.

“I’m trying to wake up the Federal Communications Commission,” remarked Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), who wants the org to start cracking down on indecent broadcast content.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s chair, used the bill to champion his pet cause: campaign finance reform. He added language that would set up a review process at the FCC for political ad complaints. During his 2000 presidential bid, McCain was besieged by a series of negative political ads, costing millions of dollars, paid for by a mysterious group called Republicans for a Clean Environment. Journalists traced the ads to two Texas GOP members. Now the lawmaker wants to make it easier to discover the true identity of individuals who pay for such ads.

A number of amendments aimed at promoting localism and citizen participation in station license renewals were discussed but ultimately withdrawn.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) decided to withdraw a proposal that would have directed the FCC to consider imposing a local-programming requirement on stations in order to get their licenses.

After heated debate, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) also withdrew an amendment boosting citizens’ ability to challenge renewals. “I want the FCC to consider individuals’ (opinions), not just simple economic interests,” she said.

McCain pledged to address those issues in a July hearing.

Feeling unappreciated

The action drew a sharp rebuke from National Assn. of Broadcaster topper Eddie Fritts. “It is clear from today’s vote that a number of senators don’t fully appreciate the unique role played by local radio and television stations all over America. From Amber alerts to life-saving weather warnings, from anti-drunk driving PSAs to charitable fund-raisers, broadcasters are fulfilling our commitment to community on a daily basis,” he said.

The committee’s action now moves on to the full Senate for consideration. When Congress returns from their Fourth of July break, critics of the media ownership relaxation will be girding for battle. FCC topper Michael Powell said Wednesday that he expects the final versions of the new rules to be released today. Opponents have been waiting for that final action to launch a round of efforts to roll back the regs.