WASHINGTON – A key House lawmaker is pledging to derail legislation that would reverse the Federal Communication Commission (search)'s decision to relax limits on how media companies can merge and grow.
The proposed legislation, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee (search) on Thursday, would roll back changes the FCC made June 2. That decision allowed individual companies to own television stations reaching nearly half the nation's viewers and combinations of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same city.
While passed by a bipartisan majority on the committee, the bill faces an uncertain future in the full Senate and a big obstacle in the House, where Rep. Billy Tauzin (search), R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, supports the changed media rules.
"We have no intentions of taking up that bill," Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said. "This has become a political soap opera, and given the chance Chairman Tauzin intends to cancel its run."
Critics say the new rules will lead to mergers that could ultimately put a few giant companies in control of what most people see, hear and read.
Many media companies said the changes were needed because the old restrictions hindered their ability to grow and compete in a market changed by cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the two other Republicans on the five-member FCC relaxed the rules in a 3-2 vote.
Lawmakers are planning other congressional tactics to overturn the changes.
Even without new legislation, legal challenges to the rules are expected from consumer groups seeking stiffer restrictions and media companies wanting even more deregulation.
Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union (search), which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, called the Senate committee's decision "an enormous victory for consumers."
"The entire Senate and House will now have to confront an angry public that wants something done to prevent the FCC from allowing greater monopolization of media," he said.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., would roll back the national ownership limit so a company can own TV stations reaching only 35 percent of U.S. households instead of 45 percent. The bill passed by a voice vote.
News Corp., owner of Fox, and Viacom Inc., which owns CBS and UPN, benefit from the higher cap because mergers have pushed them above the 35 percent level. The companies could be forced to sell stations if a new law is enacted and upheld in court.
News Corp. spokesman Andrew Butcher had no comment on the bill, but said the FCC decision to raise the cap was "a step in the right direction."
While reinstating a ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, the bill would allow state regulators to recommend that the FCC exempt particular mergers that help media outlets in financial trouble in small communities.
John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America (search), said the industry was disappointed with the committee's decision and "there will certainly be a very determined effort by the industry to get the government off the backs of newspapers once and for all."
Another amendment involving radio passed 12-11 and would expand the FCC's new, stricter radio ownership rules so they apply to stations a company already owns. If enacted, the change could force companies like Clear Channel, the country's largest radio chain with 1,200 stations, to sell stations in markets where they exceed ownership limits.
"This is an attempt to single out one company for being successful and punish them for playing by the rules," said Andy Levin, a Clear Channel vice president. He predicted the measure will be defeated later.
The government adopted the ownership rules between 1941 and 1975 to encourage competition and prevent monopoly control of the media.