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With the surprising support of several top Republicans, the Senate Commerce Committee voted Thursday to repeal many of the Federal Communications Commission’s new media ownership rules. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Ala., among other lawmakers, agreed in a voice vote to restore the 35 percent cap on the percentage of U.S. households any single television broadcast station owner may serve. They also supported reinstating in most markets the ban on companies owning a newspaper and television station in the same city and endorsed a new restriction that could force large radio operators to divest stations. The move is a blow to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who led a Republican majority at the agency to approve a controversial overhaul of media ownership limits. The initiative, adopted June 2, generally makes it easier for media companies to merge. The Senate Commerce Committee was expected to pass a bill restoring the 35 percent television station ownership limit. But before the hearing few expected that Democrats would succeed in overturning other parts of the FCC rules. The support of Sen. Stevens is critical to the effort to blunt the media regulations. The House of Representatives is not expected to support similar legislation, which means the only way to repeal the rules may be to attach a rider to the FCC’s 2004 appropriations bill. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Stevens is in a strong position to insist that such an amendment be included. The biggest fight at Thursday’s hearing was over an amendment introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that would revive the FCC ban on companies owning a newspaper and broadcast outlet in the same market. Republicans initially balked at the measure. But Stevens turned the tide among Republicans on the panel when he introduced a supplemental amendment to the Dorgan provision that would give state utility commissioners, with FCC approval, the power to lift the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban in the 60 smallest U.S. markets if it is determined to be in the public interest. Stevens argued that in small markets limits on media consolidation are putting many owners out of business. “We need to protect local ownership of media in rural towns,” he said. “If the newspaper and broadcaster can share newsrooms in some small towns, we can maybe save local news there.” The Stevens provision was adopted 14-9, with two Republicans and seven Democrats opposed. McCain prevailed 12-11 on an amendment that would require large radio companies such as Clear Channel Communications Inc. of San Antonio and Infinity Broadcasting Corp. of New York to divest some stations. The amendment stems from the FCC’s decision to revamp how it defines radio markets. Rather than using a complex system that looks at signal overlaps, the agency is adopting the geographic market definitions used by Arbitron Inc., which calculates ratings for radio and television programs. Under the FCC’s new media rules, some towns now will be counted as separate markets. That creates a problem in cities where a single company owns all the radio stations, such as Minot, N.D., where Clear Channel owns all eight radio stations. The new media rules exempt large radio companies from any requirement to divest stations in small, consolidated markets. McCain, who expressed disappointment at this FCC rule, would reverse that decision. Sens. John Sununu, R-N.H., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said they oppose McCain’s radio legislation because it would create uncertainty among business owners. “If a company that agreed to a merger and did not violate the law now is forced to divest radio stations, that has a huge impact on how they make future business decisions,” Brownback said. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., successfully added an amendment requiring the FCC to hold at least five public hearings before changing media ownership rules. Consumer groups and many lawmakers criticized Powell for holding only one hearing on his reform initiative. A number of amendments also were rejected in voice votes, including three introduced by Sen. John Breaux. One of the Louisiana Democrat’s amendments would have permitted network-owners of TV stations to exceed the 35 percent service cap if the company could prove to the FCC that its additional stations would help it “provide better local news.” Another provision introduced by Sununu that was rejected would have allowed Viacom Inc. and News Corp. to keep broadcasters they own that exceed the 35 percent cap, should the bill become law. Viacom and News Corp. have already exceeded the 35 percent cap and had waivers permitting them to keep additional stations in anticipation of the agency’s new rules. Because of prior acquisitions Viacom now reaches 39 percent of the national audience, and News Corp. reaches 37.8 percent. Separately, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, one of two Democrats on the agency’s five-member panel, called on the commission to hold off implementing the new media ownership rules until Congress completes its legislative proceedings. “This strong and bipartisan committee action should flash the orange light of ‘slow down and prepare to stop’ for those media companies rushing to buy, sell or swap stations all across America,” he said. Copyright �2003 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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