The Federal Communications Commission has shown occasional signs of life under Chairman Michael Powell, the most recent being his drive to stimulate the transition to digital television-even to the point of issuing threats to pull the DTV licenses of stations that miss the deadlines.
But in general, this FCC remains largely unresponsive to the needs of either the industry or the public. In his eagerness to deregulate, Mr. Powell has found it useful to engage in what might be called strategic inaction: avoiding regulating by simply not doing anything. Unfortunately, this lethargic approach shortchanges certain segments of the industry and throws a wrench into the workings of the free market.
One glaring example of FCC neglect under Mr. Powell has been his refusal to respond to a petition by the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance seeking help from the agency in the television stations’ battle against what they say is abusive treatment by the major networks.
The petition, filed with the FCC in March 2001, hit a brick wall when it arrived at the agency. It has been ignored for more than 14 months despite the pleadings of an increasingly frustrated station alliance and despite the apparent willingness of three of the FCC’s four members to respond to it. According to NASA Chairman Alan Frank, Commissioners Michael Copps, Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin have all indicated that they believe the FCC should consider the petition.
But Mr. Powell sees things differently, and he presents a formidable hurdle. He has declined to meet with NASA representatives, saying his schedule is full. Again, this petition was filed with the agency in March 2001. He must have one heck of a full schedule.
The prevailing theory is that Mr. Powell is uncomfortable with the petition because it seeks regulatory relief. If that’s the case, he should state his objections and allow the stations to make their next move. His refusal to participate in the process is akin to a schoolkid taking his ball and heading home because he doesn’t like the rules of the game.
Mr. Powell’s failure to act not only harms his credibility but also undermines the effectiveness of the FCC. Hopefully, his sudden interest in the DTV transition signals a new attitude on his part.