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POWELL’S GOT TO GO

Feb 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Technology executives fantasize about it behind closed doors; some Republican officials think it might be best for the party; and some agency observers wonder whether it will happen soon. But no one dares talk about it in public. Until now. Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, should resign his post, effective immediately.
The FCC, which is supposed to help consumers benefit from emerging technologies, has actually practiced an anti-consumer policy since Mr. Powell became chairman in August 2001. On most issues, Mr. Powell has seemed determined to put the agenda of large media companies ahead of the interests of average citizens. For example, his zealous mission to expand the media ownership limits still baffles his fellow Republicans. (Led by Mr. Powell, the FCC voted last June to permit a company to own TV stations that would reach up to 45 percent of the national TV audience, up from 35 percent.)
Realizing that many voters are aghast at the prospect of large corporations dominating the media, the GOP-controlled House later voted to keep the cap at 35 percent. Coming from Powell’s own party, the vote was a remarkable public rebuke. (Under a veto threat from President Bush, Congress later compromised, raising the cap to 39 percent. However, the compromise takes the power to change the cap away from the FCC, another slap at Powell.)
And in those rare cases where Powell has tried to “help” consumers, the FCC chief has so badly bungled matters that both consumers and industry officials have been left shaking their heads. For instance:
Congress has passed a law mandating that all analog TV signals be switched to digital by 2006; most analog sets would go “dark” when the transition is implemented. However, the transition will go into effect only in markets in which at least 85 percent of residents have a digital TV or a digital TV converter. And most experts agree that it’s highly unlikely that threshold will be met in any market by 2006; 2010 might be more likely.
However, the issue has created tremendous confusion in the marketplace. Some people believe they will lose their TV signals on Jan. 1, 2006, if they don’t buy a digital TV; others think that the mandate will never be implemented, so why buy a new set? Rather than try to clarify the matter, or perhaps offer some guidance, Powell has hedged, acknowledging only that it’s uncertain whether the mandate will go into effect in 2006. It seems that he’s purposely leaving the situation vague to entice more people to buy new sets.
The American people deserve better than that. The FCC chief should:
* Clearly explain what everyone needs to do to prepare for the transition.
* Be honest and admit that the 2006 mandate will not be met.
* Urge Congress to approve a firm deadline so everyone will know exactly when the transition will occur. Then consumers could make an intelligent decision on when to buy a new TV.
But, of course, that would take leadership and a heartfelt interest in the needs of consumers, two attributes that Powell lacks.
Last year, following the House vote to relax the media ownership rules, news reports suggested that Powell might resign. The FCC chief denied the reports and there has been no evidence since then that he’s planning to depart. However, in the interest of the American consumer, Michael Powell must go. And soon.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.