The Senate sided yesterday with Hollywood movie makers against the television networks in a high-stakes struggle over profits from TV reruns. It voted to bar the Federal Communications Commission for six months from issuing a rule allowing the networks to own their own programs.
Senators approved the regulatory moratorium by voice vote after Commerce Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) failed, 57 to 32, to block the proposal on procedural grounds.
The defeat of the networks at the hands of movie-makers and their allies among the independent television stations followed a lobbying battle that Packwood characterized as a clash of industry giants.
FCC rules written in 1970 bar the three major TV networks--American Broadcasting Co. Inc., Columbia Broadcasting System Inc. and National Broadcasting Co. Inc.--from owning programs or the lucrative rights to resell them for reruns. Programs are leased from Hollywood studios and producers for one or two showings, then are returned to them for syndication sales estimated to total about $800 million a year.
The FCC voted in early August to change its rules to allow the networks to own the programs; the new rule has been expected to take effect in late November.
The original rule was intended to prevent the major networks from totally dominating the television industry. But the networks mounted a campaign to reverse the rule several years ago, arguing that it barred them from competing with media newcomers such as cable and subscription television.
Yesterday's proposal to delay the FCC rule was attached to a $400 million supplemental appropriations bill of mostly noncontroversial spending items that was approved earlier by the House. The bill now goes to conference. Although the House has not acted previously on the FCC proposal, its appropriations committee approved a moratorium earlier in the year in connection with another spending bill.
Before final action on the bill, the Senate also agreed to a "sense of the Senate" resolution from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to commend American troops in Grenada "for their rescue of United States citizens on that island, and for their valor, success and exemplary conduct in battle, which has been in the highest traditions of military service."
The resolution, artfully worded to avoid triggering opposition from foes of the invasion, drew no fire from critics of the administration's action on the island and was approved by voice vote.
Another proposed amendment to add $900 million for health insurance for the unemployed was withdrawn after Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) agreed to include the funding in the next stopgap "continuing resolution" for miscellaneous government programs, due Nov. 10.
In debate over the FCC rule, Senate Majority Whip Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) argued that the moratorium was not intended to reverse the rule but rather to allow Congress to review it and its likely consequences. "We are simply asking for a delay. . . to give Congress time to consider the action and to act," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the Democratic whip.
Other senators protested in vain that the Senate was improperly legislating on an appropriations bill. But the strong vote against the FCC rule indicated the Senate was voting primarily on the substance of the legislation.