Last week, the US Senate passed a resolution of disapproval, which seeks to overturn the FCC’s December decision relaxing the multiple ownership rules to allow newspapers and television stations to come under common ownership in the nation’s largest markets (see our summary of the FCC decision here). This vote, by itself, does not overturn that decision. Like any other legislation, it must also be adopted by the House of Representatives, and not vetoed by the President, to become law. In 2003, the last time that the FCC attempted to relax its ownership rules, the Senate approved a similar resolution, but the House never followed suit (perhaps because the decision was stayed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals before the House could act). In this case, we will have to see whether the House acts (no dates for its consideration have yet been scheduled). Even if the House does approve the resolution, White House officials have indicated that the President will veto the bill, meaning that, unless there is a 2/3 majority of each house of Congress ready to override the veto, this effort will also fail.
The reactions to this bill passing the Senate have been varied. The two FCC Democratic Commissioners, who both opposed any relaxation of the ownership rules, each issued statements praising the Senate action (see Commissioner Copps statement here and that of Commissioner Adelstein here). The NAB, on the other hand, opposed the action, arguing that the relaxation was minimal, that it was necessary given "seismic changes in the media landscape over the last three decades" (presumably referring to including the economic and competitive pressures faced by the broadcast and newspaper industries in the current media environment), and that it ought not be undone by Congressional actions.
The broadcast industry is in an interesting position with respect to this decision. While broadcasters do believe that, given the competitive pressures, there is a need for greater ownership deregulation such as that approved by the FCC in December, many do not believe that the deregulation has gone far enough. There were some concerns by radio broadcasters that the December decision did not in any way relax ownership even in the largest markets, nor did it correct any of the anomalies created by the switch to a markets based on Arbitron definitions rather than contour overlap for use in computing the number of stations that one party can own in any radio market.
Perhaps most disappointed by the decision were small market TV operators, who were hoping for duopoly relief, allowing owners to operate more than one television station in the smallest markets, where the cost efficiencies of such operations would be the most beneficial. There is an interesting article in today’s tvnewsday, interviewing Bill Duhamel, a television station owner in small market Rapid City, South Dakota, about the operational and economic concerns that arise in that size market. If the December decision stands, it will take a whole new FCC proceeding and the years of litigation that follow before there can be expected to be any relaxation of the local television duopoly rules in these small markets.
The resolution of disapproval is not the only avenue pending by which the December decision could be changed. Parties on both sides of the issue have filed appeals and petitions for reconsideration that are still to be resolved. Thus, no matter what happens in Congress, we have not heard the end of the multiple ownership debate.