Hispanic Caucus Splits on Univision Merger Support

Posted August 15, 2003 at 3:15pm

While the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is officially neutral on the controversial proposed merger between Univision and the Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., support is growing among members of the caucus.

Its chairman, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), and fellow caucus member Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) sent letters supporting the merger to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell. The lawmakers asked the agency to expedite a decision on the $2.4 billion merger, which has ruffled some feathers on Capitol Hill.

The proposed merger would pair Univision Communications, the nation’s largest Spanish-language television network, and the Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., a leading owner of Spanish-language radio stations. Opponents — including NBC-owned Telemundo and the Spanish Broadcasting System — fear the merger would create a niche-market giant that would control 70 percent of the Hispanic media sector.

But Rodriguez and Serrano believe the FCC is being pushed by merger opponents to apply different standards of review to the proposal — standards possibly tinged with ethnic bias.

“Subjecting stations which serve a particular ethnic, racial, religious, or gender group to disparate regulatory treatment is offensive to all Americans,” Serrano wrote in his Aug. 8 letter. “The idea of creating a ‘separate but equal’ category of Spanish-formatted stations is one that I wholeheartedly oppose.”

The Justice Department has given the merger a green light, and the FCC was believed to have been pushing to finalize approval by the end of July. But with a final decision languishing, merger proponents have been mobilizing their supporters.

The Rodriguez and Serrano letters come on the heels of similar concerns aired by California’s Senators, Barbara Boxer (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D).

While Feinstein’s July 30 letter asked the FCC to expedite a decision, the Senator has not taken a position on the merger. In her own Aug. 1 letter, Boxer asked Powell to take immediate action but, like Feinstein, did not weigh in on how the agency should rule.

Univision says the merger would impact only a tiny part of the overall U.S. media market — a market dominated by large English-speaking media conglomerates.

“While I am always cautious of any media concentration, I am convinced that the proposed merger would enhance, not detract, opportunities to serve Spanish-speaking Hispanic and general audiences,” Rodriguez wrote in his Aug. 12 letter.

But not all of the members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus see eye to eye on the merger.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) has been critical of the proposed merger. He has alleged that Univision has been tilting its news coverage in favor of Republicans in order to curry favor with the White House to help get the merger approved.

In May, Menendez told Roll Call that the network was siding with the Bush administration during the Senate fight over federal appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada. He said Democratic opponents of Estrada had difficulty getting interviews on Univision, but the network has vehemently denied the Congressman’s claims.

In the wake endorsements from Rodriguez and Serrano, officials at Univision were pleased — but are still anxiously waiting for the FCC to rule.

An FCC spokeswoman said that the agency would not comment on the letters of support or the timing of its decision, saying only that the proposed merger is still under “active consideration.”