Editorial: Cable bullies score a win in federal court

Mar 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Michael Powell’s new job sounds like a slacker’s dream come true: chief regulator at the Federal Communications Commission just when the government appears thoroughly disinterested in regulating.
And in case Mr. Powell-a vocal fan of deregulation-needed any encouragement to spend his time honing his PlayStation skills rather than keeping an eye on the media behemoths he’s supposed to be keeping in check, he got it this month when a federal appeals court in Washington threw out a batch of FCC restrictions on cable operators. The centerpiece of those rules was the agency’s requirement that no company own systems reaching more than 30 percent of the nation’s cable subscribers.
The three-judge panel ruled in favor of Time Warner and AT&T, the cable industry’s largest operators, who had sued the FCC in an effort to clear the way to get even bigger. The regulatory agency, under Mr. Powell’s predecessor, had argued that the caps were needed to prevent the biggest cable companies from dominating the market. But the court said, in effect, that’s not a good enough reason to impose an arbitrary limit and ordered the agency to come back with a plan that’s more palatable for the cable operators.
Never mind that a natural monopoly such as cable demands more control by the government, not less, or that giant cable operators will have the leverage to freeze out small networks, or that diversity efforts will suffer another setback as it becomes nearly impossible to launch cable channels without mainstream appeal.
If one were to ask most consumers, already black and blue from being bullied by the local cable company, whether they would welcome the idea of said cable company becoming even bigger, chances are they would return a much different verdict from that of the court. But the voice of the consumer is hard to hear in Washington these days, drowned out as it is by the shouting of corporate lobbyists desperate to make sure their industry isn’t overlooked in the deregulation frenzy.
The latest court ruling has big broadcasters salivating, convinced the days are now numbered as well for the 35 percent cap on station ownership. Not to mention the restriction on cross-ownership of broadcast outlets and newspapers within the same market. In other words, the door to widespread media consolidation is finally wide open.
So relax, Mr. Powell. You should be able to cruise for the next four years.