Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell’s resignation Friday brings to an end a bumpy seven-year ride at the agency.
Fairly or not, he will be most remembered for losing his monumental battle to ax media ownership restrictions and for a crackdown on broadcast indecency that left many industry sources reeling in disbelief.
It was only the timing of the announcement that took players on the media landscape by surprise: the day after President Bush was sworn in for his second term. Mr. Powell, who was appointed to the FCC as a commissioner by former President Clinton, told President Bush, the man who named him FCC chairman in 2001, that he was ready to “let someone else take the reins of the agency.”
Mr. Powell, 41, a Republican and the son of departing Secretary of State Colin Powell, said in a statement that he had “completed a bold and aggressive agenda” and was ready to pursue other opportunities.
“He has been over there a very long time. It has not been fun,” said a Washington-based lawyer who deals with the FCC.
At least in theory, Mr. Powell argued that innovation and economic growth are fostered by a light regulatory hand and rules that acknowledge contemporary competitive dynamics, technologies and moral realities. He was such a zealous advocate of First Amendment freedoms for broadcasters during the early days of his chairmanship that he won an industry First Amendment award.
So Mr. Powell’s critics were stunned by the ferocity of his efforts to crack down on broadcast indecency last year, a campaign sparked by Janet Jackson’s exposure of her breast during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.
“It got into an election year, and he was trying to out-Bozell Brent Bozell [president of the Parents Television Council, the watchdog group credited for stirring up much of the fuss about off-color programming],” said a Washington industry insider.
At least according to some broadcasters, Mr. Powell appeared to have it in for them after the National Association of Broadcasters and affiliates successfully blocked his effort to raise the cap on national TV ownership to 45 percent of the nation’s TV homes. By an act of Congress, the cap was set permanently at 39 percent.
In just one of the broadcast industry’s beefs: Mr. Powell fought NAB’s efforts to get a regulation that would require cable operators to carry all of the programming streams multicast on digital TV channels. Mr. Powell, like the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, wanted to limit the carriage obligation to one stream.
“When did he ever come out against cable for anything?” one industry source said. “Whatever cable wanted, Michael Powell was for.”
“Michael Powell has been a truly outstanding FCC chairman and a true champion of competitive market forces,” NCTA President and CEO Robert Sachs said in a statement. “His vision and knowledge about complex telecom and mass media issues will be sorely missed, but the contributions he’s made to our nation’s telecommunications landscape will benefit consumers for many years to come. Whether jump-starting the digital TV transition or creating a regulatory environment that has allowed broadband Internet services to flourish, Michael Powell has been a major force in bringing the benefits of new technology to the American people.”
The list of presumed leading candidates to succeed Mr. Powell already felt like a compilation of usual suspects last week: current Republican FCC Commissioners Kevin Martin (regarded by some as not playing well with fellow Republicans) and Kathleen Abernathy (who also may be ready to move on); former Texas Public Utilities Commission Chair Rebecca Armendariz Klein (whose underdog congressional race failed last year despite Bush family connections); Pat Wood, another Texan, who is currently chairing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and Michael Gallagher and Janice Obuchowski, the current and former chiefs of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for the current President Bush and former President Bush, respectively.
“No matter who would become chair, we do not expect a basic change in the direction of FCC telecom and media policy, even if the White House tapped Mr. Martin, who sometimes clashed with Mr. Powell,” wrote Legg Mason analyst Blair Levin, a former senior FCC staffer, in a memo to clients Friday.
`A Real Opportunity’
Said Mr. Powell in his statement: “During my tenure, we worked to get the law right in order to stimulate innovative technology that puts more power in the hands of the American people, giving them greater choices that enrich their lives. Evidence of our success can be seen increasingly in the offices, the automobiles and the living rooms of the American consumer. The seeds of our policies are taking firm root in the marketplace and are starting to blossom. The use of cellphones, digital televisions, personal video recorders and digital music players is exploding. These devices are increasingly connected anytime, anywhere, by a wide variety of broadband networks enabling a host of competitive services and new applications. Our children will inherit this exciting future.”
“It’s a real opportunity, quite frankly,” NBC Universal Television Group President Jeffrey Zucker said Friday regarding Mr. Powell’s retirement at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Los Angeles. “Perhaps [now] there will be new approaches and new conversations. … I hope there can actually be a new agenda at the helm of the FCC. Some incredibly important issues … have been languishing, quite frankly, with the current FCC, including proper transition to digital television, protection of digital content, and hopefully common sense and some uniformity [will be applied] to the issues of indecency that have not had any semblance of uniformity at the FCC.”
“Chairman Powell is an outstanding public servant who has spent the last seven years promoting a competitive telecommunications landscape and nurturing a robust digital world for Americans,” Viacom said in a statement. “We applaud his service and wish him well.”
Not everyone let disagreements go unmentioned, but even sometime opponent NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts noted the “intellect, passion and good humor” Mr. Powell has brought to his job.
Despite Mr. Powell’s unprecedented crackdown on indecency, the Parents Television Council slammed him for coming only reluctantly to the censorship party-his hand forced by political uproar.
“Michael Powell has brought us four years of failed leadership at the FCC. His reluctance to enforce broadcast decency laws have led to confusion and uncertainty. During his term, bestiality, masturbation, oral sex, anal sex and pedophilia became FCC-sanctioned topics on prime-time network television. American families deserve more from the FCC in protecting our children from overtly indecent content,” said PTC President L. Brent Bozell in a statement that threw the group’s support to FCC Commissioner Martin. “He is a stalwart leader on the issue of indecency and would make a superb chairman,” Mr. Bozell said.
Pressing issues on Mr. Powell’s plate at the time of his resignation announcement were whether to try to expedite the DTV conversion and determining the digital TV must-carry obligations of cable operators. It remains to be seen whether the agency will vote on those issues before his March departure.
Doug Halonen and Christopher Lisotta contributed to this report.