In a very cryptic announcement, the Chairs of the House and Senate commerce committees, and the Chairs of the subcommittees dealing specifically with communications matters, have announced that they are beginning the process of rewriting the Communications Act of 1934, the Act which governs regulation of broadcasters as well as telecommunications, satellite and mobile communications entities. The announcement, from Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Senator John F. Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, and Rep. Rick Boucher, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, merely states that they will "will invite stakeholders to participate in a series of bipartisan, issue-focused meetings beginning in June" to address the issues that would be involved in such a rewrite. The announcement then says that more details will be forthcoming.
What does this mean for broadcasters? At this point, until more details are released, the issues to be addressed are anyone’s guess. Much has been made in recent years of the changing nature of the media and communications industry, particularly in light of the development of the Internet. In a recent decision, the Courts have said that the FCC is limited in its ability to regulate the provision of Internet services, and the initial impetus for this rewrite proposal may well come from that decision. But these processes, once begun, often take on a life of their own, with new proposals covering issues not necessarily anticipated at the outset of the proceeding arising as the process goes on. While there are minor amendments to the Act almost every year, the last comprehensive rewrite of the Act took place in 1996. There, while much of the debate focused on telecommunications issues (which will likely be the case here as well, as there are far more dollars at stake than in the broadcast world), broadcast ownership reform emerged at the last minute – abolishing numerical caps on television ownership and all caps on radio ownership nationally, and raising the local limits on radio ownership from the 4 stations (2 AMs and 2 FMs) previously allowed to be owned in one market by any party, to the current cap allowing ownership of as many as 8 radio stations in the largest markets.
Given the issues that are now being debated in the broadcast world – where some public interest groups continue to agitate for the repeal of the 1996 ownership limits, while broadcast groups ask for further deregulation given the expanded number of media outlets in today’s entertainment marketplace, we can be sure that the debate on any rewrite will be vigorous, and no doubt protracted. Ownership will no doubt again be the subject of debate. Senator Rockefeller has been an advocate of more regulation of program content, particularly regulation of violence on television. We may see some of those issues become part of the debate. Issues about what to include in various electronic devices – like whether to require an FM chip in cell phones to expand the broadcaster’s EAS coverage, may also become part of the review. Watch as this process develops to see what other issues are considered.
And while the debate may be protracted, it perhaps may not be as protracted as some may think. While it is unlikely that anything will be done this year, with the Congressional elections looming in November, action in 2011 is not out of the question. With so many fundamental issues raised by the changes in the communications industry since 1996, Congress may well be in a mood to consider these issues sooner rather than later.
Interested parties have already started to release comments – but watch for these reactions to become more meaningful as the issues become defined when the Committees set out the issues about which they are most concerned. This is a story that we will no doubt be following closely.