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Editorial: You’d better leave your cap on, Mr. Powell

Feb 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The stenciled lettering on incoming FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s office door isn’t even dry yet and he’s already sounding off about scrapping a bunch of pesky regulations.
Welcome to the next Golden Age of the free market. With George W. Bush in the White House and eager non-interventionists stepping up at the various agencies, the watchword for the next four years will be “deregulation.”
Mr. Powell, in particular, can’t wait to do his part. “I do not believe deregulation is like a dessert that you serve after people have fed on their vegetables,” he said at his first official news conference as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. “I believe deregulation is instead a critical ingredient to facilitating competition.”
One of his first priorities appears to be removing the regulation that limits TV station ownership by any company to stations reaching 35 percent of the nation’s households. Mr. Powell has already indicated that if it weren’t for the Communications Act-with its requirement that the FCC be sensitive to the impact of its actions on media diversity-the cap would be thrown out the window for sure.
With the new FCC not even in place yet, Mr. Powell might be wise to ease off just a smidge on the cocky posturing. Democratic Commissioners Gloria Tristani and Susan Ness support the cap, and until a fifth regulator can be seated-a process that could take months-Mr. Powell is one vote short of implementing his agenda. Further, even with Republicans holding a slim majority in Congress, Mr. Powell’s aggressive deregulatory stance in his first week on the job could scare off potential allies on Capitol Hill.
He also faces formidable opposition, at least on the station cap, from the National Association of Broadcasters, which has argued that eliminating the cap would give too much power to the networks, undermining what little leverage the affiliates now have.
The broadcasters make a good point. Lifting the cap could do damage at the local level-both to the stations and to their viewers. If the networks are allowed to buy their way into a position where they can bully the stations, local control and local coverage could erode, and so would what’s left of the stations’ role as public servant.
With the new deregulatory mood sweeping Washington, it’s too easy for regulators and lawmakers to lose sight of the fact that those regulations are usually in place for a reason, and when they’re gutted, people get hurt. Mr. Powell’s swagger should serve as a warning: For the next four years, at least, the watchdogs had better sleep with one eye open.