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Powell: Successor Should Be Bold

Mar 14, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell said last week he isn’t privy to discussions on selecting his successor, but he urged whoever gets the nod to “have the courage to be bold. Nobody wants a meek, timid FCC.”

“[The FCC] is like a merry-go-round,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s not going to stop spinning because I jumped off. … There comes a time when you let somebody else get on.”

Speculation was rife last week that an announcement of a new FCC chair was close. Insiders said the leading contenders are still Kevin Martin, a Republican commissioner of the FCC, and Michael Gallagher, head of the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Before joining the FCC as a commissioner in July 2001, Mr. Martin, 38, was a co-chairman of President Bush’s transition team for the agency. He also served as a deputy general counsel for the Bush 2000 presidential campaign.

Mr. Gallagher, 41, has been serving since July 2004 as head of NTIA, which advises the White House on telecommunications issues. He served as a top aide to former Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans and was a lobbyist for Verizon Wireless and AirTouch Communications.

Of the two, Mr. Martin is the only candidate with a track record on media issues. He has been a hawk on indecency regulation-a position that has won him enthusiastic endorsements from the watchdog Parents Television Council. He supported the broadcast industry’s effort to win regulations that would require cable operators to carry all of the programming streams that broadcasters multicast on their digital channels. Mr. Martin’s vote for a multicast carriage rule-along with his support for other issues broadcasters care about-appears to have won him the support of key broadcasters while raising concerns among cable operators.

Mr. Gallagher has no known record on indecency or multicast carriage. One well-placed source, however, said the perception that Mr. Gallagher’s roots are in the telephone industry could trouble cable operators.

Raising the prospect that some sort of bipartisan confirmation package for the FCC may be in the works, Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, wrote the White House last week to urge that FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat whose term expires this June, receive a new go-round at the agency.

Assuming that Mr. Copps gets the nod, he would remain one of two Democratic commissioners, along with Jonathan Adelstein.

On the Republican side, incumbent FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy is believed to be heading for an exit. The FCC’s two other Republican seats are expected to be filled by Earl Comstock, a former aide to Sen. Stevens, and Rebecca Armendariz Klein, a former Texas Public Utilities Commission chair.

Mr. Powell’s tenure will be best remembered for his battle to relax media ownership restrictions-a battle he ultimately lost-and for his crackdown on broadcast indecency. But during his final promenade across the agency’s public stage, the focus was on the magnitude of the Republican FCC chairman’s tenure.

“We disagreed on some issues,” Mr. Adelstein said. “But we agreed on far more than we disagreed on.”

“The majority of the decisions we reach are actually reached in unanimity,” added Mr. Copps, who is credited with spearheading the public relations charge that led Congress and the courts to overturn Mr. Powell’s media ownership deregulation.

Despite the well-wishing, Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, said, “[Mr. Powell’s] legacy will be ultimately that he inspired the biggest consumer revolt against the agency in its history.”

Some broadcasters felt that Mr. Powell had it in for them because the National Association of Broadcasters and TV affiliates thwarted his effort to raise the cap on national TV ownership to 45 percent of the nation’s TV homes. Under compromise legislation, the cap was set permanently at 39 percent.

In one of his final actions as chairman, Mr. Powell led a 4-1 agency majority last month that defeated an NAB proposal that would have required cable operators to carry all of broadcasters’ digital programming streams.

He also recently expressed his opinion that extending broadcast indecency regulation to cable and satellite-a proposal endorsed by some broadcasters-could be unconstitutional.

In his remarks to reporters last week, Mr. Powell, as if in anticipation of the broadcast industry innuendoes, said he was saddened by suggestions that public officials sometimes have ulterior motives for their actions.

“There’s nothing cooler than thinking you’re sitting here solely on behalf of the American people, and to know intellectually you’re focused on only one thing: just trying to do the right thing for our citizens,” he said.

On a personal level, Mr. Powell, 41, told reporters that he has yet to line up another job and that he is planning a family vacation in the Virgin Islands after vacating his offices this week.