WASHINGTON Media companies will be able to own television stations that reach 39% of the American viewing public under the big spending bill approved yesterday by Congress.
The Federal Communications Commission had voted to allow the companies to reach 45% of viewers, but Congress then voted to keep the current 35% limit. Under a veto threat from President Bush, lawmakers agreed to the 39% cap. The bill, which is awaiting the president’s signature, also takes the power to change the cap away from the FCC.
The 39% limit allows two media giants Viacom Inc., owner of CBS and UPN, and News Corp., owner of Fox to keep all their television stations. Through mergers and acquisitions, both had exceeded the 35% cap.
Viacom and News Corp. spent a combined $5.5 million on lobbying between Jan. 1, 2002, and June 30, 2003, and $2.3 million on campaign contributions for the 2002 and 2004 elections.
Bush has received more in campaign donations from the broadcast industry than any other federal candidate since Jan. 1, 2003. He took in $158,450 more than 10% of the industry’s $1.4 million in donations for the 2004 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.
There also is a legal battle over media-ownership rules.
A federal appeals court in Philadelphia temporarily blocked the higher cap and suspended other FCC-adopted ownership changes, including rules making it easier for companies to own newspapers and broadcast stations in the same community. Arguments are scheduled for Feb. 11.
Opponents of the higher cap said they regretted Congress’ action but would work with lawmakers to overturn the FCC’s other media-ownership rules.
“It’s regrettable that it’s there and that it was done behind closed doors, but we have much larger issues to address this year with Congress,” said Celia Wexler, research director for Common Cause, an advocacy group. “We already have the Senate on record as saying that all the media rules should be overturned and certainly that Senate piece is still very relevant.”