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Senators Examine Media Ownership Ahead of FCC Ruling

The Senate Commerce Committee, which maintains congressional oversight of the FCC, convened a panel of media executives and representatives from public interest groups to examine the issues regarding the upcoming FCC vote on media ownership.

The Senate panel hearing comes less than 24 hours after the five commissioners received the draft of proposed rule changes on which they will vote.

The agency’s five commissioners received the proposal on Monday night — giving them just over three weeks to consider the recommendations before their final vote. The reportedly 200-plus page plan was not released to the public, but two unidentified government officials who had seen it described the contents to the Associated Press.

According to those sources, the proposal relaxes three key ownership limits, including a restriction on owning multiple television stations in the same market and a ban on a company from owning a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same local market.

The plan would allow a single company to own television stations that reach up to 45 percent of U.S. households, upping the current cap of 35 percent, according to the AP’s sources.

Several senators on Tuesday expressed concern about how such changes would affect their constituents.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) warned that greater media concentration could threaten the diversity and localism of broadcast programming and news.

“This proposal is about stripping that away and making [programming] more vanilla… I don’t think consumers want this,” Cantwell said, asking the Senate witnesses to justify how greater media concentration would benefit the public.

Mel Karmazin — the head of CBS’s parent company, Viacom — dismissed the argument that lifting ownership caps and promoting cross ownership would harm diversity or localism.

“Viacom… work[s] hard to know what viewers want in each market where it has a media outlet. Localism is good business,” Karmazin told the senate panel.

He pointed to the range of Internet sites, radio stations, and cable stations as examples of media diversity.

Karmazin said it was in the public interest for the FCC to abolish the decades-old media restrictions, saying it would promote greater investment in broadcast networks, which could then diversify and improve their news and programming. 

But, Jim Goodmon, chief executive of Capitol Broadcasting Company of Raleigh, N.C., argued against the FCC proposal to raise the national cap to 45 percent, among others.

Goodmon told the Senate panel that the proposed changes amounted to an “attack on localism” and would “take away local control over television programming.”

Ranking Democrat Fritz Hollings from South Carolina, who was not present at the hearing, said in a prepared statement that he intended to introduce legislation blocking the proposed 45 percent rule from taking effect.

Hollings — along with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Cantwell — have called upon the FCC to disclose the proposed ownership changes before enacting them and allow the public to review and debate how the changes might affect them. 

“It would be inappropriate to make significant changes that could have a sweeping impact on how our society engages in public debate without first having a complete airing of these new rules,” Snowe said in a prepared statement. “Wouldn’t it be better to shed some light on these potentially industry altering changes, before we get so far down the path we can’t turn back.”

At the hearing, Cantwell chastised the agency for its “secrecy” on the proposed changes to media ownership rules, which the FCC had received the night before.

“What’s the rush? Why all the secrecy?” the senator asked.

“I think this hearing today shows the amount of anxiety over these proposed media changes,” Cantwell said.

Snowe and Cantwell pointedly questioned why the FCC and media companies sought to overhaul the media ownership regulations when the nation remained largely unaware of the FCC’s upcoming vote.

Karmazin countered, the “public interest is not served by delay,” and that “it was time for the commission to do its job and complete this biennial review.”

Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had earlier urged the FCC to proceed with its scheduled June 2 vote.

Noting the hearing had run long, McCain said the committee would hold another hearing on the matter to allow the second panel of witnesses to testify and to continue the public discussion of the FCC’s impending vote.

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