It may have been cable TV’s big victory over Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin, but at this point it’s not who won or lost last week’s battle over the FCC’s attempt to impose cable curbs, but whether the rancorous fight will have lasting implications for other FCC issues.
As the FCC readies for a December vote on media ownership, on the heels of the drubbing Mr. Martin took from legislators, interest groups and fellow FCC commissioners, FCC watchers and critics suggest the most likely scenario isn’t that Mr. Martin is hamstrung or dramatically weakened. Instead, it’s that the agency itself moves on.
“From my experience, commissioners quickly move on to the next issue. There is too much to do to let past battles get in the way of ongoing responsibilities,” said Gloria Tristani, a former FCC Democratic commissioner.
But the fight—which has created a rift between Mr. Martin and Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who publicly questioned the FCC’s data—could have its longest-lasting impact in the agency’s relationship with Congress.
One broadcasting lawyer last week suggested the battle reinforces already strong Capitol Hill concerns about “process issues” and transparency at the FCC and said any potential impact could come swiftly.
“The commission has been deluged with letters from the Hill on process issues already. It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future, but it looks like those [Mr. Martin] has to work with will be far more skeptical than they have been up to this point,” said the lawyer, who declined to let his name be used.
The fight began with Mr. Martin’s attempt to issue a video competition report saying that cable had exceeded the key 70/70 benchmark—available to 70% of households and subscribed to by 70% of those. Under federal law, passing that milestone enables the FCC to impose additional regulations on the cable industry to assure consumers get real cable competition.
But the FCC rejected that conclusion. Its final report will say the cable industry may have exceeded the level, but more data is needed from cable companies—data the cable industry says will clearly show it is nowhere near the benchmark.
The potential problem for Mr. Martin on Capitol Hill is that some cable industry supporters ended up parroting the same concerns about openness and transparency at the FCC that up to now have been mainly voiced by legislators opposed to media-ownership rule changes.
What that means for the FCC isn’t completely clear, but it might not take long to find out.
The Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday is due to act on legislation that would force a postponement of a vote on media-ownership rule changes until next spring because of concerns that the FCC hasn’t offered adequate time to review some of its studies in the ownership debate. FCC commissioners then face members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s telecom panel on Wednesday and the Senate Commerce Committee on Dec. 13.
The potential loss of Capitol Hill comes as the FCC prepares to hold a Dec. 18 meeting that is tentatively chock-full of major votes.
Along with voting on Mr. Martin’s proposal to alter a cross-ownership rule that now bans newspapers and broadcasters from buying each other in a market, the FCC is to consider proposals that would ease the ability of minority owners to lease TV channels and a proposal to open an inquiry into changing product-placement disclosure requirements.