Powell: Politics Above Principle

Jun 9, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Michael Powell is not fooling anyone.
The Federal Communications Commission, led by Chairman Powell, last week adopted new rules that will permit broadcasters to expand their control of media properties. Networks can now own TV stations that reach a combined 45 percent in a local area. In addition, the FCC voted to lift a ban that prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in a local market.
I have mixed feelings about the decision. On one hand, it could have a positive impact on the advancement of new TV technologies. With even greater power, big broadcasters such as News Corp., Disney and AOL Time Warner will amass even more cash. Consequently, they are more likely to invest in interactive services, such as video-on-demand and high-definition TV.
However, the FCC’s action will lead to more consolidation and fewer voices. In time, the conservative Rupert Murdoch may own your local newspaper, three of your local TV stations, the leading cable news network and your satellite TV service. (Murdoch’s News Corp. just purchased a controlling interest in DirecTV.)
Would that be fair or balanced?
But there’s something even more troubling.
furthering his agenda
Powell, a Republican who became FCC chairman in 2001, has apparently decided to use the agency to further his political agenda. He will say almost anything to support GOP-backed proposals. For instance, in defending the FCC’s ownership rule change, Powell said the “free market is my religion.” The agency chief echoed long-held GOP doctrine that the government should not interfere in the private sector unless absolutely necessary.
Of course, Republicans such as Murdoch stand to benefit most from the FCC’s vote. But that said, the “free market” position is a valid one. That is, if Powell really believed it.
In August 2002, Powell looked more Marxian than Keynesian when he rammed through a rule forcing the consumer electronics industry to totally revise its business. The rule requires TV makers to include digital tuners in all sets by 2007 and in all large-screen sets by July 2004. CE officials say it could force them to raise TV prices to defray the costs.
losing my religion
Is that the free market at work?
Of course not. But Powell wants local stations to convert to digital so the feds can auction off their analog space. This would help the Bush administration reduce the federal deficit.
However, on this issue, the free market is not working to Powell’s satisfaction. Consumers are slow to buy digital TVs. Consequently, local stations have been equally slow to convert to digital. Powell believes the federal government needs to move things along.
Like other religions, I guess the “religion of the free market” is open to interpretation.
There are more examples. Powell has frequently criticized the cable TV industry and others for not moving faster on high-definition TV. However, Murdoch’s Fox Network does not broadcast a single show in HDTV.
Powell has never said a word about that. Murdoch is arguably the TV industry’s leading supporter of GOP causes.
When it comes to new TV technology, the FCC chief has apparently taken some advice from his father. Politics first, principle second.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions .com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.