The broadcasting industry and its congressional allies are close to concluding a power play to win House committee approval of a bill that would effectively deregulate the television industry.
Supporters of television deregulation, backed by the politically powerful National Association of Broadcasters, are preparing to add deregulation language to a routine spending authorization bill for the Federal Communications Commission, bypassing the telecommunications subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Senate has already passed a broad deregulation bill, and the broadcasters' move around the telecommunications subcommittee, if successful, would eliminate what has been the the industry's largest obstacle.
Aides to subcommittee Chairman Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) charge that the move violates an agreement to keep the FCC authorization bill "clean," but supporters of deregulation deny any such deal was made and are pressing to get their bill before the full Commerce committee, as soon as possible.
The NAB-backed bill would sharply reduce the regulations that broadcasters must satisfy when renewing licenses, in exchange for a guaranteed minimum of public affairs programming.
Subcommittee Chairman Wirth has refused to allow consideration of deregulation in part because the broadcasters would not agree to his demand for a "spectrum fee"--payments for the right to use the broadcast spectrum--and partly because he wants more specific assurances of public affairs programming, including news, local issues coverage, and children's programming.
"They the broadcasters do not care about fairness and equal time rules and they they don't care about the other types of rules that have been established," according to Wirth. "What they care about is a guaranteed license. This would give them a guaranteed license and removes what little incentive a broadcaster has toward his or her community to improve programming."
Shortly after the NAB convention in April, Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa) and Wilbert J. Tauzin (R-La.), with NAB support, fashioned legislation to deregulate the television industry. Their first draft, according to one subcommittee staffer, "could have been written by the NAB."
Lacking the votes to attach their bill to the FCC authorization before the full House committee, Tauke and Tauzin went to Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), a former broadcaster, two weeks ago "for support," according to an aide. Swift agreed to go along with the move to bypass Wirth's subcommittee in exchange for accepting his proposal for a "quantified public interest standard." That means broadcasters would have to guarantee at least a minimum quantity of public affairs and news programming.
Tauke and Tauzin agreed to accept "huge chunks of the quantification bill," according to a Swift aide. The three congressmen and their aides--with assistance from the staff of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the committee chairman--are now ironing out the details of the legislation. Swift hopes it will be ready for introduction next week.
In an effort to reach a compromise, Dingell met with Wirth and the deregulation faction on Tuesday. No compromise was reached, leaving Dingell with the decision on whether to move the legislation to the floor or shunt it back to Wirth's subcommittee.
"I think everybody agrees that Mr. Dingell holds the cards," says Ed Fritts, National Association of Broadcasters president. Fritts said the NAB only accepted Swift's quantification concept as a compromise to escape the jurisdiction of Wirth's subcommittee.
One complicating factor is that Wirth's staff is currently negotiating with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on legislation to deregulate the television industry. According to some congressional aides, Wirth may have hurt his own cause by his tight control of the issue in the subcommittee.