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TV Ownership Cap Raised After Congress Backs Down

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Congress backed down on its strong opposition to the new media ownership regulations of the FCC by agreeing to a compromise with the White House, raising the TV ownership cap from 35 to 39 percent. We speak with the Consumers Union Gene Kimmelman. [Includes transcript]

On Monday, Congress backed down on its strong opposition to the new media ownership regulations of the Federal Communications Commission by agreeing to a compromise with the White House. The compromise lifts what is known as the TV ownership cap from 35 to 39 percent. This will allow ABC and NBC to be able buy more television stations. CBS and Fox will not be able to because they were already over the existing cap. If Congress had enforced the 35 percent cap, CBS and Fox would have been forced to sell off stations.

Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union said “This is a backroom deal to let the two largest networks keep all of their stations.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Roy Cambolt, Taz’s Dillema. Here on Democracy Now, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. On Monday, Congress backed down on its strong opposition to the new media ownership regulations of the Federal Communications Commission by agreeing to a compromise with the White House. The compromise lifts what is known as the 'TV Ownership Cap' from 35% to 39%. It will mean that CBS and FOX, which have broken the cap of 35% will not have to sell off stations. We’re joined now by Gene Kimmelman. Gene Kimmelman is director of the Consumer’s Union. Explain exactly what this means? Who wins, who loses?

GENE KIMMELMAN: Well, first let me say, it’s not an absolute done deal yet. This is the agreement between the Bush Administration and Congressional Republican leaders. The Democrats have not signed off on it, and they may be able to object to it today in the final spending bill they’re trying to rush through before Thanksgiving. What it basically means is that the large media giant that control television networks would be allowed to grow larger. As you pointed out, CBS, owned by Viacom and FOX, owned by Newscorp, are already over the current limit. They have been given a waiver by Michael Powell, the Bush Administration’s F.C.C. chairman.

This would put into law the ability of the large companies to own more local stations. We’re concerned that this backroom deal was totally unnecessary. There is strong bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate to return to the old lower limit, and allow local stations to have more control over what’s on the air, serve their community better and not be dictated to by the national media giant. But despite that, Republican leaders in Congress wanted to, apparently, work out something with the Bush Administration, which had threatened a veto of any legislation to roll back media ownership rules. This is an apparent face-saving effort. But I think people — press, the Senate, particularly the Democrats — to stand firm, this deal may not go through.

AMY GOODMAN: And who has stopped it at this point?

GENE KIMMELMAN: Well, right now, the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Daschle, has raised objections to a lot of special interest provisions in this final spending bill. We think other Democrats, who have been very concerned about media ownership, and maybe even Senator McCain, the Chairman of the Commerce Committee, a Republican who has not wanted to see all of this done on spending bills, all may object. But we need to ask citizens to let their Senators know that they want meaningful ownership limits put in place as soon as possible, and not just a special deal for the broadcasters.

AMY GOODMAN: And, explain exactly what the 35% means, or the 39%.

GENE KIMMELMAN: Well, what we know is that the networks reach everyone in the country with over-the-air television, they own stations, and they have affiliates. The 35% was a limit designed to make sure the networks couldn’t own too many of the stations. They can have affiliation agreements with everyone in the country.But they couldn’t own and control all of the programming reaching too many citizens. 35% was a compromise raised from the 25% limit before. We have been relaxing media ownership rules for the last 20 years and letting the networks own more. 39% obviously would let them own even more stations and basically dictate the programming the citizens in local communities get to watch, from news across to entertainment; obviously a danger if you care about having more citizen control, more local control of what is on mass market local television stations.

AMY GOODMAN: It was surprising that there was, it seems, a bipartisan, really, rejection of the F.C.C. new media rules, Republicans as well as Democrats. And the fact they were putting this into the Omnibus Bill meant that Bush could not outright reject it, veto it. What happened?

GENE KIMMELMAN: Well, what happened here is that when you put something in an omnibus bill at the end, the White House has an awful lot of power, especially when its same party controls the House and the Senate. As much as a lot of Republicans are concerned about preserving democracy, more diversity of views in the local media, they also are very concerned about not embarrassing their President. And so, there was an enormous pressure here to try to work something out. Again, I say it still can be undone if the Democrats object, but it shouldn’t be totally surprising that there is bipartisan support. After all, regardless of your political views, people of both very conservative and liberal points of view want democracy to flourish. They want good public debate and that’s what this is all about, making sure we have diversity in media that will ensure a broader public debate.

AMY GOODMAN: Well Gene Kimmelman, I want to thank you for being with us. Gene Kimmelman is Director of the Consumer’s Union in Washington, D.C., very involved with the media reform movement.

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