Nets Cheer New FCC Chair

Mar 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Kevin Martin’s promotion to the chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission last week played to particularly enthusiastic reviews from broadcasters, who expect him to swing support their way on key business issues such as media cross-ownership and digital multichannel must-carry while continuing to support media consolidation. His appointment drew support from the National Association of Broadcasters, while the reaction on the cable side was cool and polite.

However, broadcasters may not be as pleased when the issue turns to regulating free TV content for indecency. Mr. Martin is expected to be even more conservative than former Chairman Michael Powell, supporting tougher regulations and an even more hands-on approach to scrutinizing content. For that reason, his appointment played well with the Parents Television Council, the group that stirred up much of the fuss about indecency at the FCC last year, and Focus on the Family, a conservative religious organization.

“A huge win for the NAB,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, of Mr. Martin’s promotion. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they tear up Eddie’s resignation,” Mr. Chester added, alluding to NAB President Eddie Fritts’ recent announcement that he is planning to retire.

The cable industry, which must work with Mr. Martin on numerous thorny issues over the next few years, publicly offered polite congratulations. In a statement last week, National Cable & Telecommunications Association President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow said: “We look forward to continuing to work closely with Chairman Martin to maintain a deregulatory environment for competitive telecommunications services.”

“Martin is a very complex guy who is also very political and very smart,” said Steve Effros, a cable TV industry consultant. “I don’t think you can pick winners or losers with him.”

Mr. Martin is much better connected to the Bush administration than was his predecessor. His wife, Catherine Martin, is a special assistant to the president for economic policy and previously served as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

“He knows them all [at the White House],” said one source. “He’s part of the family.”

Mr. Martin is seen as a wily political operator. He is considered more affable and personable than Mr. Powell. He has demonstrated a willingness to hear out all arguments on issues. But lobbyists warn clients not to let Mr. Martin’s youthful appearance and low-key demeanor fool them. He has strong conservative credentials and can be expected to advance the Bush administration’s objective to deregulate the market as much as is practicable.

Mr. Martin, a Harvard-trained lawyer, has already proved his ideological credentials. He served as deputy general counsel on President Bush’s 2000 campaign and co-chairman of the president’s transition team for the FCC, jobs in which he rubbed shoulders with such White House powers as Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

Before that he was an aide to former Republican Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth-easily the most conservative member of the agency during the Clinton administration, if not ever. Yet it surprises some that he’s not a complete marketplace ideologue. Instead, particularly in the telephone arena, he is said to have demonstrated that he will support government regulation when he believes it’s needed to enhance competition.

“It’s very hard to plug him into an ideological hole,” said Chris Stern, an analyst for Medley Global Advisors.

Before his original tour of duty as an adviser at the FCC, Mr. Martin was an attorney for Wiley Rein & Fielding, the law firm headed by former FCC Chairman Dick Wiley.

Since Mr. Martin is already at the FCC, his appointment as chairman can take effect immediately. An outsider would have had to win Senate confirmation for a seat at the FCC before beginning his or her own chairmanship.

“I am deeply honored to have been designated as the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and I thank President Bush for this distinct privilege,” said Mr. Martin in a brief statement after the announcement of his promotion. “I look forward to working with the administration, Congress, my colleagues, and the FCC’s talented staff to ensure that American consumers continue to enjoy the benefits of the best communications system in the world.”

Stepping Right In

Mr. Martin has made no secret of his ambition to eliminate an agency rule that bars radio and TV station owners from buying daily newspapers in their markets.

“Under Chairman Martin’s leadership we anticipate that [newspaper-broadcast] cross-ownership will finally be addressed, and we are certain the provision is indefensible,” said Shaun Sheehan, Tribune VP, Washington.

“It’s good for the cause,” said John Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, which has also targeted the cross-ownership regulation for extinction.

As a Republican commissioner at the agency, Mr. Martin joined his GOP colleagues in voting in June 2003 to substantially relax the prohibition as part of a controversial package deal that also eased other key agency media regulations.

To the industry’s dismay, a federal appeals court subsequently blocked the deregulation, sending the entire package back to the FCC.

Now broadcasters with newspaper interests want the FCC to loosen the cross-ownership prohibition once again, and Mr. Martin has already made clear his preference on the subject.

“I believe we should relax this rule, if not repeal it,” said Mr. Martin in a speech before the June 2003 vote on media ownership deregulation.

Digital Must-Carry

Sources said Mr. Martin’s promotion to the chairmanship has also breathed new life into the broadcast industry’s hopes of winning rules that would require cable TV operators to carry all of the programming streams broadcasters multicast on digital channels.

In one of the final acts of his chairmanship, Mr. Powell delivered a 4-1 decision to derail an NAB proposal that would have required cable systems to carry broadcasting’s multicast digital streams, with Mr. Martin the sole objecting commissioner.

“I think the public would benefit more from more free programming,” said Mr. Martin, in explaining his dissent at the time.

The NAB’s Mr. Fritts said in a statement last week: “Kevin Martin is the right person at the right time to lead the FCC. Kevin has a passion for public service and a deep understanding and appreciation for the value of local broadcasting. We salute President Bush for this superb choice, and we look forward to working with Chairman Martin and his colleagues.”

Still, other industry sources said that the broadcast industry’s efforts to win multicast carriage obligations appear particularly bright because two Republican seats at the FCC are expected to open shortly: Mr. Powell’s and that of Kathleen Abernathy.

The leading contender for one of the slots is Earl Comstock, a former aide to Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Sen. Stevens has endorsed the concept of a digital carriage obligation that would require cable operators to carry the main signal and all other programming streams that broadcasters offer on DTV channels that focus on full-time public-service commitments such as news or weather.

The leading candidate for the other GOP seat is Rebecca Armendariz Klein, a former Texas Public Utilities Commission chair.

Broadcast Indecency

Despite his support for broadcasters on some levels, Mr. Martin has been a strong proponent of the agency’s campaign to crack down on indecent broadcasting.

Under Mr. Powell’s chairmanship, the agency last year issued indecency fines and consent decrees that reached almost $8 million. But much of the fuss was spurred by public and congressional pressure in the wake of Janet Jackson’s exposure of her breast during the Super Bowl broadcast. Mr. Martin and FCC Democrat Michael Copps were true believers long before political circumstances forced a response, key sources said.

Indeed, it was Mr. Martin’s anti-smut credentials that earned him
immediate support from the Parents Television Council and Focus on the Family.

“Given Mr. Martin’s partnership with FCC Commissioner Copps and a supportive White House and Congress, there could be a serious chilling effect on radio and TV,” said the Center for Digital Democracy’s Mr. Chester.

“Mr. Martin has supported recent FCC decisions which have significantly expanded the commission’s prior indecency rules while making the definition of what constitutes indecency unacceptably vague,” added Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Hollywood watchdog Center for Creative Voices in the Media. “The result has been a substantial and dangerous increase in self-censorship by broadcasters and creative artists who no longer know where the FCC draws the line.”


Giving cable reason for qualms, Mr. Martin has also advocated that cable and satellite TV restructure to offer a tier of family-friendly programming to their audiences-an idea that Sen. Stevens is now promoting vigorously.

“Subscribers who are interested only in programming they can enjoy with their family would finally have a way to purchase only that programming,” he said in a speech at the NATPE conference in 2003. “Alternatively, cable and DBS operators could offer programming in a more a la carte fashion.

“Under either alternative, parents would benefit greatly. They would enjoy the greatly increased choices and high-quality programming available through MVPDs [multichannel video programming distributors], while knowing that the programming they receive would be something the family could watch together. And they would no longer be required to pay for programming that they believe is unsuitable for their children.”