BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, as part of an omnibus spending bill that funds the FCC and other governmental agencies, congressional Republicans and the White House agreed on a TV ownership cap of 39 percent. This number represents a compromise between the 45 percent limit that the FCC had set this summer and the 35 percent limit decided by lawmakers after the public uproar over the FCC's action. But who exactly was compromising? Democrats were excluded from the negotiation, and some of them are howling, as, of course, are the media advocacy watchdogs accustomed to baying at the moon on this issue. One of those hounds is Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, and he joins me from Washington, DC. Jeff, welcome back to OTM.
JEFFREY CHESTER: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Senators and Congressmen, Republicans and Democrats had already hashed out a number --35 percent -- in their conference committee. Where did the 39 percent figure come from all of a sudden?
JEFFREY CHESTER: The four television networks were putting a lot of pressure on both the Bush White House and the Congress, particularly the Senate, to come to some compromise over the TV ownership cap. President Bush had threatened to veto the entire omnibus spending bill, as unbelievable as that might seem. It would grind the entire government to a halt. It was a credible threat. And so the chief sponsor of the TV cap legislation in the Senate, Senator Stevens, agreed to a deal.
BOB GARFIELD:This had all been hashed out earlier in the conference committee. Fritz Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat said, quote, "The Republicans went into a closet, met with themselves, and announced a compromise." He seems to be rightfully righteously indignant over this, but on the other hand, you know, the Democrats say they're shocked-shocked that the terms would suddenly change after the deal was struck, but is this really such an unusual development by Capitol Hill standards?
JEFFREY CHESTER: Look, there was always going to be a deal on media ownership. I think the good news is this issue is not going away. Democrats and some Republicans have said they will bring up the TV ownership issue and the other media policy FCC issues when Congress re-convenes. So you are facing some kind of showdown.
BOB GARFIELD:I couldn't help but notice that this new 39 percent figure will keep both Rupert Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting and Viacom CBS just under the limit, which would mean they won't have to divest themselves of stations. Coincidence?
JEFFREY CHESTER: No, the real reason they picked the number 39 was because the White House had agreed to help the networks with their lobbying goal. Fox and Viacom CBS don't want to divest. They're already above the limit, and both NBC and ABC want to buy more stations, so 39 was a perfect number for them. It's still a big victory in the sense that the networks lobbied the FCC, and indeed have--are still going to court saying there shouldn't be any limit whatsoever -- that a television network should be able to buy as many stations as they want to buy, either in a community or across the country. So 39 is still a significant defeat for them.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, presumably though it will be more difficult for the networks to prevail in court with respect to the law of the land than it would over just some FCC regulation.
JEFFREY CHESTER: Yeah, the networks have been tremendously successful in court, because they've gone in and said look, the FCC came up with these numbers and these rules in an arbitrary fashion, but now, for the first time potentially, you'll have the Congress setting the limit.
BOB GARFIELD:So as a media advocacy watchdog yourself, although I guess the non-negotiated negotiation must chafe, all in all not a bad deal compared to where we were back in the summer?
JEFFREY CHESTER: Well, who would have imagined, that, you know, Jeff Chester and the other public interest advocates would be standing alongside Trent Lott, Kay Bailey Hutchison and the National Rifle Association protecting our nation's media and democracy? We've made tremendous strides. It's become a front-burner issue, almost a front-page, A section story instead of in the back of newspapers. So there's been a tremendous, I think, consciousness-raising across the country and across the political spectrum that media concentration is truly a problem and needs to be addressed.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jeff, as always, thanks very much.
JEFFREY CHESTER: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:Jeffrey Chester watches the FCC as executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. His book, Digital Destiny, will be published by The New Press in 2004. [MUSIC]