FCC Critics May Force Rollback Vote in Senate

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By: David Ho, Associated Press Writer

(AP) Senate critics of sweeping media ownership changes approved by the Federal Communication Commission said Tuesday they have enough support to force a vote on rolling back the decision.

A resolution of disapproval for the rules changes, a seldom-used maneuver also called a “congressional veto,” could go straight to the Senate floor for a vote as early as the first week of September, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., one of 20 senators sponsoring the measure.

The resolution is among several legislative challenges to an FCC overhaul that would allow individual companies to own television stations that reach nearly half the nation’s viewers. Companies would also be allowed to own newspapers and broadcast stations in the same city.

“This galloping concentration in broadcast ownership is unhealthy,” Dorgan said at a joint news conference with Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. “We feel very strongly we have to send a message from the Congress to the FCC to do it over and do it right.”

To succeed, the resolution would need majority approval in the Senate and House and President Bush’s signature or enough votes to override his veto.

Last week, the House voted 400-21 for a spending bill that included a provision that would prevent a single company from owning enough television stations to reach more than 35% of the nation’s viewers.

The Republican-dominated FCC raised that cap to 45% and made other changes — including allowing a company to own a newspaper and broadcast outlets in the same market — on June 2 with a 3-2 party-line vote.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told reporters Tuesday that he backs placing the same language restoring the 35% limit in a spending bill his panel will write this fall. Since spending legislation must be approved by Congress, this route might force a showdown on the issue.

Many media companies said changes were needed because the old rules hindered their ability to grow and compete in a market altered by cable television, satellite broadcasting, and the Internet.

The National Association of Broadcasters said Tuesday that the changes don’t go far enough. It plans to sue the FCC in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The influential industry group wants to block changes to how radio markets are defined and overturn rules that still prevent TV station mergers in some smaller markets, spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Critics warn that the FCC changes will lead to mergers that could put just a few companies in control of what most people see, hear, and read.

Before the House vote, the White House threatened to veto any final bill that contains language rolling back the TV ownership cap. Top House Republicans who support the FCC changes are hoping that threat will help them strip the provision from the final House-Senate compromise on the spending bill later this year.

“We’re in for a long, tough fight,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He said supporters of the changes need to better educate lawmakers that “there is no lack of diversity in the marketplace. There is no concentration of media ownership in television.”

Mounting resistance in Congress has left FCC Chairman Michael Powell on the defensive, issuing public statements justifying his agency’s actions and denying rumors that he plans to resign.

“The tone of the rhetoric has grown increasingly shrill,” Powell wrote Monday in an opinion piece in The New York Times. “Our nation’s media landscape will not become significantly more concentrated as a result of changes to the FCC rules.”

Lott, who recommended to President Clinton that Powell be on the commission, said he disagrees with Powell’s position but sees no need for him to go.

“This is not just about Powell. I am not advocating he resign,” Lott said. “He may feel the need to do it, but that’s his call.”

Lott said he supports deregulation in general, but media companies should be treated differently.

“There is strong feeling in the Congress and among the American people that they did not handle these decisions correctly,” Lott said. “I will do everything I could to override a veto in this area because I think it would be a mistake.”

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