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House Approves Roll Back of New Media Ownership Rule

By a 400-to-21 vote, lawmakers approved a spending bill for the FCC and other agencies that included language blocking the FCC from approving any business deals that would allow a single company to own stations reaching more than 35 percent of the national audience.

The FCC recently passed new regulations that would have allowed a media company to expand ownership of TV stations in a single market and expand its collective reach of U.S. households to 45 percent. The previous cap was 35 percent.

The five-member FCC narrowly approved the new rules on a 3-to-2, party-line vote on June 2.

“We are confident in our decision,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a written statement ahead of Wednesday’s House vote. “We created enforceable rules that reflect the realities of today’s media marketplace. The rules will benefit Americans by protecting localism, competition and diversity.”

The biggest beneficiaries of the FCC’s relaxation of ownership limits would be large media conglomerates such as Viacom Inc., which owns the CBS and UPN networks; and News Corp., owner of Fox. Due to recent mergers and other business transactions, both already exceed the 35 percent limit.

Opponents of the FCC decision said it would give giant broadcast corporations too much sway and limit the opportunities for local media companies or news organizations to compete.

President Bush has publicly supported the FCC’s move to relax the TV ownership rules. But many members of Congress, both Democrat and Republican, have expressed concern that the new rules would lead to a lack of local flavor and competition in certain markets.

Top Republican lawmakers are reportedly hoping that, with the threat of a veto by President Bush, the final House-Senate compromise bill later this year will drop the provision undoing the FCC ownership change.

“If this provision or a provision like it with respect to any one of the other FCC rules is contained in the final legislation presented to the president, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill,” the White House said in a letter sent to Congress on Tuesday.

The House vote is the latest in a series of moves by members of Congress to scale back the sweeping deregulation of the media industry.

By a 40-25 bipartisan vote, the House Appropriations Committee in mid-July approved a provision, sponsored by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), that would undo the FCC’s new relaxed ownership rules and reinstate the 35 percent market cap.

Obey described the provision, which was inserted into a bill to fund the Commerce, Justice, and State departments, as an attempt to stop major corporations from dictating what kind of news and entertainment most Americans see on TV.

“There’s a great deal of consternation about that across the country,” Obey said during debate Tuesday. “In my view that is a severe threat to democracy.”

A statement by NBC lobbyist Bob Okun praised the FCC decision as “a positive and much needed step offering regulatory relief to free, over-the-air television,” and called the legislation “extremely disappointing to us,” according to the Associated Press.

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