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Adelstein could break FCC impasse

Dec 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A long-pending affiliate request that the Federal Communications Commission crack down on alleged network abuse could finally be resolved now that Jonathan Adelstein has stepped in as the agency’s fifth commissioner, breaking an impasse.
The agency’s other four commissioners have been deadlocked over the controversial issue since last summer.
According to sources, two of the agency’s Republicans-Chairman Michael Powell and Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy-want to dismiss the request on procedural grounds.
The two other commissioners-Democrat Michael Copps and Republican Kevin Martin-have made clear their belief that the agency should address the issues.
At deadline, Mr. Adelstein, a Democrat, had not returned telephone calls. But some sources have speculated that he would be predisposed to the affiliates’ cause.
“The hope is he’ll be sympathetic with local viewer interests and the right of local stations to make program decisions,” said Wade Hargrove, a longtime affiliate attorney.
Network representatives declined to speculate on how Mr. Adelstein would come down on the issue.
But Preston Padden, The Walt Disney Co. executive VP, worldwide government relations, said, “Jonathan is extremely knowledgeable about all of our issues, and we are thrilled he has joined the commission.”
The affiliate complaint, filed in March 2001, alleges that the networks are running afoul of agency rules by overreaching in efforts to prevent affiliates from pre-empting network programming.
Another agency deadlock that Mr. Adelstein’s vote breaks is over a controversial request by broadcasters for the agency to beef up its digital TV carriage obligations for cable.
As it stands, the FCC’s rule requires cable operators who opt to carry a broadcaster’s DTV signal to carry only the station’s primary video signal, which consists of the main free broadcast signal and related programming content.
Broadcasters want the FCC to amend the regulation to require carriage of all of a broadcaster’s free DTV offerings. That means if they multiplex on their DTV channels, divvying their DTV frequencies into multiple programming streams, cable operators could be required to carry up to six channels for each of the broadcasters they carry.
Sources said Chairman Powell and Commissioner Abernathy have been leaning toward the status quo on the issue. Commissioners Copps and Martin, according to sources, have been more sympathetic to the broadcast industry’s arguments.
FCC at full strength
Mr. Adelstein, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was sworn in last Tuesday. His appointment brings the FCC to its full complement of five commissioners for the first time since Democrat Gloria Tristani resigned in September 2001.
Industry sources said the fact that Mr. Adelstein’s seat expires on June 30 next year puts him on a short leash politically because he will need Republican support to be renominated and reconfirmed for a full five-year term.
“The hope is he won’t be Copps, he’ll be Copps lite,” said one industry source, in reference to Mr. Copps’ demonstrated willingness to fight Mr. Powell on key issues.
But Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, said Mr. Adelstein will be scrutinized by industry critics as well.
“If Adelstein tries to engage in compromises that weaken the principal positions that Copps has taken, he will find himself being attacked from the left,” Mr. Chester said.