Congress, Cable Assail FCC’s Martin

Mar 19, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The bumps in the road are getting bigger for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin.

Mr. Martin, a Republican, on March 15 endured nearly four hours of questions from congressmen in his first meeting with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which flipped to Democratic control in the last election. Committee Chairman John Dingell warned Mr. Martin the FCC may face similar hearings on a monthly basis if the agency doesn’t shape up.

The same day, cable television system operators heaped more pressure on Mr. Martin, assailing him over issues including channel-by-channel pricing and the fees cable companies pay to local broadcast stations to transmit the local outlets’ signals.

Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said he wasn’t “personalizing” the cable industry’s disputes with the FCC by criticizing Mr. Martin. The tenor of his comments, however, indicated a level of dissatisfaction with Mr. Martin’s agency that dates back to the dispute on so-called a la carte cable-channel pricing.

“From the point of time we had a fight over a la carte to now, the path chosen is not one that I think reflects the realities of the marketplace. I don’t think it’s rocket science,” Mr. McSlarrow said of Mr. Martin.

Mr. McSlarrow also for the first time went public with a change in the National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s policy on the retransmission fees that cable operators pay stations. The cable operators feel the current rules that govern negotiations over how much they pay aren’t fair, Mr. McSlarrow said. He said members of his organization want more teeth in the requirement that the stations negotiate so-called retransmission consent in good faith.

Mr. McSlarrow’s offensive, along with Mr. Martin’s trip to Capitol Hill, suggest that for the remainder of the Bush administration, the FCC will be on a tighter leash.

“Congress is always interested in a wide variety of issues the commission works on and I always look forward to engaging with them on the issues and I appreciate their concerns,” Mr. Martin said at the committee hearing. The FCC declined to comment on Mr. McSlarrow’s comments.

Besides using the FCC as a political target to generate headlines during an election year, Congress may push the agency for more tangible results.

“It moves some balls up the hill that the FCC wasn’t willing to work on,” predicted Kevin Taglang, editor of the newsletter published by the Benton Foundation, a non-profit that tracks media issues in the digital age.

“What the commission won’t be able to do is sit on things any more,” Mr. Taglang said. “It’s all about accountability. If the commission says it’s going to get something done by the end of the year, there will be a lot more attention to deadlines.”

Blair Levin, a former FCC official who is now an analyst for Stifel Nicolaus, said this round of congressional attention isn’t novel and that such scrutiny has a known effect.

“Martin knows whatever he does will be watched and possibly criticized, particularly by Democrats,” Mr. Levin said. “I don’t think there will be a change in direction, but the background noise does have an effect on how he runs the institution.”