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FCC’s cap scrap hits speed bump at House

HOLLYWOOD — Enough. A decade since mergers and buyouts began to accelerate, “the people” have finally come out and said “halt” to further media consolidation.

To the surprise of many pundits, the U.S. House of Representatives voted decisively last week to block a new Federal Communications Commission rule on media ownership.

No one was probably as nonplussed as Viacom and News Corp. — which have already been allowed to bend the rules and bulk up their station groups beyond the previously regulated limit.

Viacom acquired the CBS station group in 2000, and News Corp.’s Fox snapped up the Chris-Craft stations in 2001, putting each over the then-35% limit.

That cap was overturned June 2 when the FCC voted, in a 3-2 party-line split, to relax the stricture to 45%. The congloms had actually lobbied for total repeal of that reg as well as for latitude in media cross-ownership.

It’s conceivable that Fox and Viacom will now have to offload a half-dozen or so stations in smallish markets, like Greensboro, N.C., or New Orleans. or swap these for second stations in larger cities where they already own a station in order to dip back under the old cap. (Duopolies do not count toward additional national coverage.)

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

The House hand-show of 400-21 has a long way to go –through a joint House-Senate conference committee, where the regulatory language might get stripped out of the budget bill to which it is attached, and past a threatened veto by the president.

But even if it’s defeated, folks as diverse as gun-toting members of the National Rifle Assn., supporters of the National Organization for Women and a bevy of Hollywood writers and producers have galvanized the debate.

These and many other observers of the caps dispute apparently intuit that localism and diversity have already been substantially reduced, or at least redefined, because of consolidation in all areas of showbiz.

Admittedly, some of those folks, in and out of Congress, feel that consolidation has accentuated the Hollywood-New York nexus and privileged its freewheeling values over more conservative community standards.

But whatever the rationale behind their protestations, those opposing consolidation are digging in. “No more,” they say.

So even if the FCC vote does stand, the message could affect further moves down this slippery slope.

Regulators may actually think harder about the repercussions the next time two behemoths get the urge to merge.

And the FCC may even be compelled to rethink its own role in the media landscape.

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