The lame-duck leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee has announced plans to take up controversial, industry-supported broadcasting legislation next week that would extend all radio and television licenses from three to five years.
In addition, the committee on Tuesday is expected to take up a proposal that would change the standards by which the FCC evaluates these vital license renewal requests.
The mark-up session is being called to take up House-passed broadcasting legislation, a bill passed this fall that is dramatically different from the licensing proposals that are expected to be put forward by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate communications subcommittee.
In October, the House easily passed legislation that codifies Federal Communications Commission rules concerning newspaper ownership of broadcasting outlets.
But the suggestion that the lame-duck session would take up the bill and consider more far-reaching amendments to the Communications Act of 1934 caught some activists in the field by surprise.,
Howard Symons, a communications lobbyist for Ralph Nader's Congress Watch, blasted the committee effort. "This is the kind of giveaway you're always afraid of at the end of the session," Symons said.
Andrew Schwartzman, director of the Media Access Project, said he was stunned by the committee announcement. "I'm outraged because this is undesirable legislation being considered in a haphazard manner," he said. "I had thought that it was generally considered to be poor form for important legislation to be considered without hearings by lame-duck legislators."
There has been considerable bipartisan support for changing the term of broadcasting licenses, with supporters of such a plan arguing that the FCC does not have the resources to monitor adequately the paperwork that accompany these license renewal requests.
But opponents, such as citizen group leaders, have said that extending the terms of licenses limits the public's ability to challenge a broadcasting outlet that local residents believe is not serving the public's needs.
In addition to extending the license period, Hollings also is expected to propose a major change in the standards for renewal. The proposal, which has had vocal broadcasting industry support, would permit FCC law judges considering the renewals to give added weight to a station's performance. Only an existing license holder, rather than a challenger, could be given credit for those criteria.