FCC turns its attention to affils charges

Jul 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A long-pending affiliate request that the Federal Communications Commission crack down on alleged abuses by their networks may finally receive agency action.
At least FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said last week that the agency’s commissioners are seriously deliberating over what to do about the request, made by the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance. “It’s ripe for a vote,” said Ms. Abernathy, at a press briefing. “Stay tuned. “
But some sources said no matter how ripe the issue, the agency appears to be deadlocked on it. So a final resolution may have to be put on hold until a fifth commissioner comes on board (See story, Page 2).
Ms. Abernathy declined to comment on how she would prefer the controversy be resolved.
But sources said the agency’s chairman-Michael Powell-has made clear he wants to dismiss the petition. Ms. Abernathy, according to sources, is expected to go along with the chairman, giving him her usual support.
However, agency Democrat Michael Copps has said he believes the petition has raised important issues that should be addressed. The FCC’s fourth commissioner-Republican Kevin Martin-has also said he doesn’t think the petition should be thrown out.
Assuming a deadlock can be avoided through some sort of compromise, a decision could be handed down as soon as this week, when Mr. Martin is scheduled to return from vacation. Said an aide to Mr. Martin: “He hasn’t made up his mind. He will [do so] quickly when he gets back.”
Among other things, the affiliate petition, which was filed March 8, 2001, alleges that the networks are running afoul of agency regulations by overreaching in efforts to prevent affiliates from pre-empting network programming.
If the FCC rules in favor of the affiliates, they could be freed to pre-empt low-rated network programs at will, an obvious boon to their bottom lines. A pro-affiliate decision could also hurt the networks financially by limiting program clearances.
The networks have urged the agency to reject the petition on grounds they involve contractual arrangements that are none of the agency’s business.
But an affiliate source said, “There’s no way that the FCC can read the Communications Act, the FCC’s rules and its previous case decisions and policy statements and conclude that the contractual provisions cited by the affiliates in the NASA petition are not in violation of all the above.”