FCC ownership rules receive setback from Senate

MUMBAI: Critics have called it the efforts of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to aid media giants like Viacom, News Corporation and Disney to completely control several parts of America's television and newspaper landscape.

But now critics have something to cheer about following the double whammy the FCC received this week over its decision to relax media ownership rules in the US.

It was in June that the FCC commissioners voted three to two to allow US broadcast networks such as NBC and ABC to buy more stations at the national and local levels. The FCC had also lifted the ban preventing a newspaper from buying a television station in the same city.

However yesterday, a US Senate panel voted to stop the FCC from enforcing the relaxed provisions for a year. This comes on the heels of the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia granting a stay on the ruling, a couple of days ago, till a thorough judicial review of the legislation has been made.

At the moment, media companies cannot own local television stations that reach more than 35 per cent of the US population. FCC had elected to hike that limit to 45 per cent. Recently the New York Times had noted that News Corp's Fox and Viacom's CBS already exceeded the 35 per cent cut off mark.

Over the past few months, the Senate has been under pressure to block the FCC proposal from several advocacy groups including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Organisation for Women and Common Cause. The Congress is said to be pursuing a rare exercise of its power to override executive branch decisions.

While federal agencies must fulfil their job, if an agency oversteps or badly missteps the Congress, the courts can rein it in as has been the case here. It has also been reported that Senator Byron L Dorgan, who opposes the new rules, plans to introduce the 'resolution of disapproval'. This is a tool that Congress can use to overthrow agency regulations. If passed, it would nullify all the FCC's June rulings.

If the resolution of disapproval is voted down, Dorgan plans to introduce an amendment that would restore the ban preventing cross-ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same city. The broadcast networks were pressing for an elimination or significant relaxation of the rules as they wanted to compete with cable and satellite providers. The FCC could file an appeal in the US Supreme Court or accept defeat and hand the issue over to the Congress to legislate on.

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