12 to Watch: Kevin Martin

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

If Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin gets the third Republican vote he needs to command an agency majority this year, a move that is widely anticipated, he’ll finally be free to unveil his regulatory agenda.

Mr. Martin has been quiet about his plans for the industry since assuming the agency’s chairmanship last March. Industry sources say that’s because he has been denied the votes he needs for a Republican majority. So far, he has been presiding over a commission made up of two Republicans-himself and Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate-and two Democrats, a situation that has forced him to compromise and stick to relatively tame political terrain.

Until Mr. Martin gets his majority, industry sources don’t expect the cautious former White House aide to tip his hand much.

But there’s little question what industry lobbyists expect to see at the top of Mr. Martin’s wish list: elimination or substantial relaxation of the media cross-ownership rule, which bars radio and TV station owners from buying daily newspapers in their markets.

Before he stepped in as chairman Mr. Martin made no secret of his belief that the rule should be eased. Last year he tried to get the deregulatory ball rolling against the cross-ownership prohibition, along with other agency rules that limit the ability of broadcasters to buy additional stations in their markets.

But he put the plan on hold because he couldn’t forge an agreement on how to proceed with the agency’s two Democrats, staunch foes of deregulation, who had the power to block him. With a third Republican vote at the agency, Mr. Martin will no longer have to defer to Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. Or so goes the conventional industry wisdom.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, said, “There’s tremendous pressure [by the industry] to move ahead [with deregulation].”

Said Mr. Martin: “My goal is to work closely with all of my colleagues to develop consensus on issues before the commission. That said, a fifth commissioner could serve as a tie-breaker, allowing the commission to move on additional issues when the commission is divided.”

Also, assuming Mr. Martin gets a third GOP commissioner, the broadcast and cable TV industries will at long last find out what Mr. Martin’s publicly avowed concerns about indecent programming mean for them. As industry sources are quick to recall, the watchdog Parents Television Council was so impressed with Mr. Martin’s hard-line stance against indecency that the group promoted him for the agency’s chairmanship last year.

When it comes to cracking down on off-color programming, Mr. Martin’s strongest existing ally at the commission thus far has been a Democrat, Mr. Copps, a hawk on the indecency issue. What Mr. Martin needs to pursue his anti-indecency goals is a Republican with a similar attitude.

Mr. Martin, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was originally appointed to the agency as a commissioner in 2001 after serving on the Bush-Cheney transition team. Mr. Martin has strong connections to the White House. Besides serving on President Bush’s transition team, he served as a deputy general counsel for his presidential campaign and was a special assistant to the president for economic policy at the White House. His wife, Catherine Martin, is a senior White House aide.

At A Glance

Title: Chairman, Federal Communications Commission

How long in current position: Since March 18, 2005

Year of birth: 1966

Place of birth: Charlotte, N.C.

What to watch for: Mr. Martin is expected to move to relax the agency’s media ownership rules after he gets a third Republican vote on the commission.

Who knew? Mr. Martin is a former student body president of the University of North Carolina and an avid Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fan.