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Senate passes media bill


WASHINGTON -- After making scores of deals with the nation's biggest communication companies, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that would sweep away decades of regulation for telephones, cable television and broadcasting.

The vote, 81-18, eliminates the biggest remaining uncertainty behind efforts to rewrite the nation's communications laws and replace traditional regulations with open competition.

The bill is broadly similar to a measure recently approved by the House Commerce Committee; that measure is considered likely to pass the full House later this summer.

The bill could reshape the telecommunications and media industries. Local telephone companies, long-distance carriers and cable television concerns would be given carte blanche to attack one another's markets.

The value of television and radio stations is likely to soar, because of provisions that greatly increase the number of stations a single company can own.

Price regulation for cable television would be largely eliminated.

"It is the intention of this bill to get everybody into everyone else's business," said Sen. Larry Pressler, the South Dakota Republican who sponsored the bill. "I think this will result in lower telephone rates, lower cable rates."

But at least in the near term, cable television prices would be expected to increase in many markets, because it could be years before competitors are in place to challenge existing monopolies.

Local telephone prices are likely to remain flat, though prices for certain types of calls could drop sharply and people in larger cities might be able to choose between rival companies within a few years.

White House officials, though angry about losing on many issues, said President Clinton would not decide whether to veto the measure until a final bill emerged.

Pressed by competing business lobbyists, Republican leaders essentially won passage of the bill by giving as much as possible to each interest.

"If you look at this legislation, there is something for absolutely everybody -- except the consumer," said Brad Stillman, legislative counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.

But supporters of the legislation said emphatically that it would result in lower prices for telephone and cable television services.

The arm-twisting was palpable. In one case, Time Warner Inc. and Viacom Inc. struck a deal with Mr. Pressler to remove a provision that would have forced them to offer cable channels like Home Box Office and MTV at volume discounts to small cable television operators.

In a letter released by the senator yesterday, the chief lobbyist for Time Warner, Timothy J. Boggs, wrote to Mr. Pressler saying his company would provide HBO at a volume discount to a large cooperative in exchange for deleting a broader legal obligation.

Mr. Pressler denied that the actions were related, though the provision was removed yesterday afternoon.

Nearly every attempt by a handful of Democratic lawmakers and the Clinton administration to retain tougher regulation was defeated.

The cable television industry, which was subjected to strict price regulation by Congress less than three years ago, emerged as one of the biggest winners by becoming freed from most rules.

When a handful of Democrats and the Clinton administration pushed for an amendment that would have preserved stricter rules, they were outvoted 67-31, with one abstention. Both Maryland senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, backed the amendment. The two were later in the majority in passing the overall bill.

Television and radio broadcasters, meanwhile, won broad new freedom to acquire many stations. In another lopsided vote, the Senate rejected an amendment that would have limited companies to owning 100 AM and FM stations nationwide. The current limit is 40 stations, and the Senate bill would completely eliminate the limit.

The broadcast television networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- fared equally well this week.

In a display of political influence on Tuesday evening, the networks reversed a narrow vote that would not have allowed them to own television stations reaching more than 25 percent of the national audience.

Pushed by Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, lawmakers reversed their original vote less than 30 minutes later.

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