Snowe, Allies Look to Forestall FCC Reform

By: Todd Shields

(Mediaweek.com) Word spread quickly on Capitol Hill last month that Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) was moving to challenge the Federal Communications Commission. As she began working the phones, other congressional offices called, volunteering to sign her letter urging more openness in the FCC’s review of media ownership rules. The result: By the time Snowe and co-correspondent Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) dispatched a letter taking the FCC to task, they had gained signatures from 15 senators — including a majority of the Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC.

The rush to sign the March 19 letter reflects some disquiet among both parties at the prospect of bigger media companies. The resulting challenge to FCC chairman Michael Powell could peak in coming weeks. The Commerce Committee is expected to summon the five FCC commissioners before their scheduled June 2 vote on changes to rules that limit TV networks’ size and restrict local media concentration. Media companies eager for fewer restraints, and their opponents, will watch closely to see if Snowe and her allies can forestall a decision.

For his part, Powell delivered his reply last week. There is no reason to delay, Powell said in a letter sent to 31 members of Congress who have written letters to the FCC on the ownership issue, about half of whom urged that he stick to the June 2 deadline. The commission’s collected input on the issues, including more than 18,000 comments, means “the time to make judgments is before us,” Powell said.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), the deregulatory-minded Commerce Committee chair, promptly lauded Powell’s stance. But for Snowe, a moderate Republican with a strong independent streak, the campaign continues. She said she hopes Powell will allow more congressional and public comment before making new rules.

“Time is running short to provide full public disclosure of the rule changes,” Snowe said.

Snowe’s activism on media ownership follows conversations with Frank Blethen, who heads family-run corporations that publish The Seattle Times and three dailies in Maine, including the Portland Press Herald. Blethen is campaigning against media concentration and has raised the issue with the four senators from Washington and Maine. “As she’s gotten into it, she’s really ‘gotten it,’ and she’s stepping up to take leadership, which is really wonderful,” Blethen said of Snowe’s emerging role.

Another GOP lawmaker opposed to relaxing the ownership rules is Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). Allard is uneasy with the rising prices of ads and subscriptions since The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News formed a joint operating agreement two years ago.

“I don’t think he’s going to relent,” said Allard spokesman Dick Wadhams. Judging from their recent letter-writing and lobbying, nor will Snowe and her allies.

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