New Congress Seeks to Scrutinize FCC

Feb 1, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Members of Federal Communications Commission making their first appearance before the new Congress got a strong warning that they aren’t sufficiently assuring that broadcasters operate in the public interest. Now that Democrats are in charge, their actions will be drawing more scrutiny.

“Commercial television is the worse shape I’ve ever seen. I barely watch it. I hope my children don’t,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., during a meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee. “I don’t believe that the FCC is conducting appropriate oversight. In the renewal process the FCC has abandoned its core responsibility to the public interest.”

His comments and those of other senators set a new tone for Congressional review of FCC actions as the agency considers new media ownership rules and potentially deals with implications of court rulings of several indecency cases. While the Senate was generally more skeptical of broadcasters than the House under Republicans, media ownership rather than broadcasters’ “public interest” obligations were the biggest focus.

Sen. Rockefeller decried what he said was pro forma “postcard” license renewals.

“Broadcasters are given access to the public airwaves and in return they have to live up their obligations. That is going to change from this last election. There is going to be a lot more attention on the Federal Communication Commission and what they are or are not doing about the critical areas in broadcasting.”

Later Sen. Rockefeller announced he would reintroduce legislation to extend broadcast indecency restrictions to cable and satellite services and also give the FCC authority to curb violence on TV. The senator proposed similar legislation in the last Congress.

“Since the broadcasters have continually failed to self-regulate their product for the good of the children, it falls on the government to step up to the plate,” he said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, called the “public interest” protection an “important mandate” on the FCC.

“We look forward to participating in discussions with the commission on how we advance this goal,” he said.

Other senators questioned whether the FCC sufficiently examined the impact of media consolidation on local news coverage, whether it was sufficiently watching out that rural customers don’t get stuck with lesser services and become victims of a digital divide and whether the FCC was doing enough to see that U.S. broadband speeds kept up with other countries.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., called the FCC current public interest enforcement “pretty emasculated.”

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin in his testimony cited decreasing broadband pricing as an FCC success, but said he was still unhappy with cable pricing which he said had risen “at a disproportionate rate.”

“While consumers have enormous choice among channels, they have little control over how many channels they are able to buy. For those who receive 100 channels or more, today’s popular cable packages may be a good value. But according to Nielsen, most viewers watch fewer than two dozen channels. For them, the deal isn’t as good,” he said.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association disputed that assessment.

“Chairman Martin’s comments reflect an outdated, incomplete and wholly inaccurate analysis that doesn’t reflect the realities of today’s marketplace, where consumers enjoy more competition, greater choice and better services than ever before,” said Brian Dietz, VP-communications.

Several FCC issues never surfaced at the hearing. Sen. Inouye, who asked Mr. Martin about the Sinclair Broadcasting Group/Mediacom Communications retransmission dispute in a letter earlier this week promising to raise that issue at the hearing, never did.

(Editor: Fees)