BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The 108th Congress has just begun, and the change in party leadership could have serious consequences for regulation media -- maybe. On the Senate side, the chairman of the Commerce Committee that oversees a lot of these issues has moved from Fritz Hollings to the unpredictable but always interesting Arizona Republican John McCain. Alicia Mundy is senior editor for Cable World magazine, and she joins us now. Welcome to the show!
ALICIA MUNDY: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now in a recent article you made a glancing reference to McCain's [AHEMS] -- shall we say, distractibility? Is it possible to tell yet what his chief priorities will be in this area?
ALICIA MUNDY: Well those of us who have covered him on media issues over the years, we've always been fascinated by what seems to be attention deficit syndrome [LAUGHTER on McCain's part. You know, one, one week he's sort of screaming about media consolidation, and the next week he's saying let's remove all the regulations and let two companies buy everything in sight. But I think he will get rid of the regulation banning a broadcast station in one town from also owning a newspaper in that same town. Now the trouble is, Hollings was very much against removing that; he was very concerned about the power of one media mogul to co-opt an entire market. I think this has been something that the Democrats have been terrified will happen. Nonetheless the Democrats aren't in power any more, and I think this rule's going to go down and you're going to just see a lot of ownership of both newspapers and broadcast stations in the same cities resulting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so on the issue of newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership, McCain would seem to stand mostly with his Republican colleagues. Are there any of his positions that would pull against that majority?
ALICIA MUNDY: I think he disagrees with a number of his colleagues on the issue of the network ownership cap. In the past he's said let's let an individual network own so many stations that they can reach more than 35 percent of the American audience. He has said that he was in favor of raising that rule in the past. I think now he's become very concerned about the effects of what he sees in media consolidation. McCain really no longer wants to see the networks get the kind of cap raise that they'd like. They'd like the cap removed entirely or pushed up to 50 percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about McCain's support or lack thereof in the committee and in the Senate in general. You've noted that at least a couple of McCain's Republican colleagues might not be all that eager to lend a hand.
ALICIA MUNDY: Whenever he starts talking like a populist, he sounds just like one of the Democrats and you'd think he would be right up there with Fritz Hollings. He doesn't sound like a Republican as often as he needs to, and so he's got Trent Lott who's never liked McCain. You've got Ted Stevens from Alaska who, you know, has been sitting on that committee for years with McCain but does not vote in sync with him and is not a big fan of his. So it's going to be a very, very weird session of Congress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It struck me that some of the most prominent Democrats like presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman seem to be much more hopped up on the issue of TV's sex and violence -- more -they're more concerned about content than conglomeration.
ALICIA MUNDY: Well this is the big issue that I think is going to take root, and it could have an impact on the whole issue of how much deregulation and how much media consolidation do you want. Commissioner Michael Copps who's Democrat on the FCC has been pushing for quite a while that there is a connection between the amount of media consolidation and the amount of what he would consider indecent sex and violence on the air -- both on radio and television. And you have strange bedfellows making even stranger politics here with the very conservative Republicans joining the very liberal Democrats and saying we have got to start cleaning up the airways! And this is a very important issue, because the networks in terms of viewers are taking it on the chin; they're losing viewers to cable, because cable has more sex and more violence, and they're trying to copy the cable TV shows at a time when people in Congress are going oh, my God -- how can we make the network shows more family-palatable? I think we're going to see a big collision here, and frankly, I'm going to enjoy covering every minute of it. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I want to talk about the January 14th hearing where senators actually -- they didn't take responsibility; they didn't say what have we wrought -- but now they're saying we gotta stop this runaway train with regard to deregulation, and your description of the hearing was pretty funny. The right and the left are both complaining about media consolidation and, and it seemed to drive you nuts. Why?
ALICIA MUNDY: Well, having covered this -- and there's a whole group of us in Washington who actually covered the original Telecom Act in 1996 and the debate on it in '95 -- we're called the Sparkheads, [LAUGHTER] and you know we've lived through this -- so the same people whom we saw standing up 6 and 7 years ago demanding the rights of telecommunications company to buy anything and everything they want -- all of a sudden they're standing up on January 14th and they're shedding these crocodile tears and wringing their hands over -- oh, my goodness! Did you know that some radios-- owners now 1400 stations -- isn't that awful?! And you're sitting there going -- I'm sorry - what did you think was going to happen with the [LAUGHTER] Telecom Act? Michael Powell, to his credit, didn't actually hit anyone-- [LAUGHTER] the Chairman of the FCC very carefully said you know, well, well you know-- senators, this was what was ruled about in the Telecom Act that you yourselves voted on -- hint, hint. I think he should have stood up and said you know well look - hey - it's got your initials on it! You take responsibility for it!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you don't mind my asking you to prognosticate -- I mean you've been covering this stuff for a very long time -- what do you really think will be accomplished this congressional session?
ALICIA MUNDY: Well "accomplish" is such a big word [LAUGHTER] for anything coming out of Congress. What do I think will happen as in "accidents" and things like that? I, I think that ultimately we will not see as much de-regulation as the larger networks, larger radio conglomerates would like to see. I think we will see an end to that rule that, that keeps you from owning a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same town. But I think the rest of the caps -- whether it's on network television ownership or cable ownership -- I think they're really going to be more gradual than people have been predicting, and certainly more than Wall Street wants them to be!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alicia Mundy, thank you very much.
ALICIA MUNDY: Oh, thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alicia Mundy is senior editor for Cable World magazine. [MUSIC]