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Bill that aims to boost competition in communications passes House panel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Rolling over the protests of several Democrats, the House of Representatives' Commerce Committee voted yesterday to kill most cable television price regulation and lift scores of restrictions on the number of television, radio and other media properties a single company can own.

The committee voted 38-5 in favor of a bill to overhaul the laws governing virtually every sector of the nation's communications industry. But battles over several particular provisions, which came earlier in the day, were more bitter and partisan.

The primary objective of the bill is to knock down regulatory barriers that separate local telephone, long-distance carriers and cable television companies into separate groups.

As had been expected, the committee adopted a delicately balancedprovision that would let local Bell telephone companies enter the long-distance and cable television industries while forcing them to open up their own markets.

But Republicans on the committee went further than that yesterday, shooting down decades-old regulations that were intended to prevent too much concentration of ownership in broadcasting, radio and newspapers.

The bill has strong support from House Speaker Newt Gingrich and islikely to pass the full House of Representatives this summer. The Senate Commerce Committee has already passed a bill that takes a similar approach, though the House measure is more hawkishly deregulatory.

But many disputes remain, and the ultimate prospects of final passage are unclear.

Still, the action yesterday gave several groups, particularly the cable television industry and the television networks, virtually everything on their political wish lists.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which is looking for new media properties, was one of many companies that lobbied hard for the ability to own television stations and newspapers in the same market.

ABC, NBC and CBS and other large broadcasters like the Westinghouse Electric Co., Tribune Co. and Ronald O. Perelman's New World Communications Group all lobbied for sharply increasing the number of television and radio stations a company could own nationwide.

But medium-sized and smaller broadcasters were opposed to lifting the restrictions, fearing competition from powerful new rivals.

The Washington Post Co., which owns both cable and broadcast stations, staunchly opposed the measure. The National Association of Broadcasters, the industry trade group, was split over the issue and remained neutral. But industry lobbyists have seldom met more receptive lawmakers. Committee Republicans have held numerous meet ings with industry executives since January, some behind closed doors, at which they implored companies to offer as many suggestions as possible about the ways that Congress could help them.

The Clinton administration opposes several features of the bill, especially the repeal of most cable television price regulation. But House Democrats were notably timid yesterday, offering several rather tame amendments that were roundly defeated by the Republicans.

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