Martin to Leave Mixed Legacy

Apr 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin may have temporarily averted one slap late last month, as a Senate committee postponed a vote on overturning his media ownership changes, but the clock is starting to tick on the end of his tenure.
A Democratic win in November would leave Mr. Martin out in January, and broadcast and political observers say the cable industry’s fierce opposition to Mr. Martin may mean he would meet a similar fate should Republican Sen. John McCain win the presidency.
While Sen. McCain has his own issues with cable—he’s been outspoken against price hikes and like Mr. Martin has talked of channel-by-channel pricing as an answer—he is less likely to defend Mr. Martin, and would be apt to want his own FCC chairman.
Mr. Martin, who has been an FCC commissioner since 2001, became chairman on March 18, 2005. With nine months left in his term, here’s a look at what Mr. Martin has accomplished and what remains to be done.
Digital Transition
Mr. Martin’s grade as FCC chairman in part will rest on how easily the country makes its transition to digital TV on Feb. 17. Mr. Martin may no longer be FCC chairman then, but the process will be part of his legacy.
That’s true even though Congress turned some key parts of the transition over to the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Congressional Democrats say the efforts to promote the transition and pay for converter boxes have been underfunded.
In one key move, Mr. Martin’s FCC in November 2005 delayed the deadline for TV sets to have digital tuners to March 1, 2007, and extended the requirement to even the smallest TV sets. The FCC, under Mr. Martin, also required retailers to begin clearly marking sets that lacked digital tuners.
Some of Mr. Martin’s critics, including some fellow commissioners, have questioned whether the FCC waited too long, potentially giving consumers unwelcome surprises next year.
They also question whether the FCC should have taken a more active role and created a single message promoting the transition. Instead, the broadcast, cable and retailing industries each launched their own campaigns, with differing messages.
Commissioner Michael Copps has questioned whether the FCC should have done dry runs in a test market to determine what other steps might be needed to successfully coordinate the switch.
Mr. Martin has lately proposed an FCC ad campaign, moved to require TV stations to do more to promote the digital transition and has suggested the FCC might unveil a program to help senior citizens and others get digital sets working, but the question is whether it will be done in time.
The ultimate answer of how well the switch went will come next year.
An FCC aide said the transition is Mr. Martin’s highest priority this year.
Media Ownership
After a long look at changing the country’s rules governing broadcast media ownership, the FCC made only one change, allowing newspapers and broadcasters in the same market to buy each other.
That change is less dramatic than the more sweeping relaxation of ownership restrictions approved under Mr. Martin’s predecessor, Michael Powell, which eventually was overturned in court. Mr. Martin took more time and proceeded more carefully in examining the issue than his predecessor, a difference he has noted several times in congressional testimony. The FCC held six public hearings on the issue under Mr. Martin, as opposed to one under Mr. Powell. Mr. Martin also has held several hearings on the effect of a loosening of ownership rules on local programming.
Still, under Mr. Martin the FCC’s outline of its plan and its approval a month later happened very quickly. Congressional Democrats and some Republicans had asked Mr. Martin to hold off.
His resistance infuriated Democrats, who felt the FCC rushed a final vote, not allowing enough time for comment or consideration of how the changes could impact minority ownership or local programming.
The haste increased their concern about Mr. Martin’s management and the transparency of FCC procedures under him.
Congressional critics are mounting an attempt to overturn Mr. Martin’s proposed changes, and they aren’t alone.
Consumer groups have asked courts to intercede, saying the changes go too far. On the flip side, broadcasters have gone to court saying the changes don’t go far enough in easing ownership restrictions in the face of increased competition from new media.
Mr. Martin also has been at the center of FCC merger approvals, including those allowing AT&T to buy BellSouth (and take control of Cingular) and allowing the Tribune Co. to be sold to Sam Zell and an employee stock ownership plan.
Consumer groups have questioned whether the approvals served the public interest. The Tribune sale allowed the Zell group to keep several Tribune stations and newspapers, despite conflicts with FCC cross-ownership rules. Both consumer groups and Tribune have since filed legal
The outcome of those challenges also could help determine Mr. Martin’s legacy.
Mr. Martin has continued his quest to lower cable prices in part by pushing a la carte pricing. In the process he has angered the cable TV industry and some of its Republican supporters in Congress, who have been increasingly outspoken in criticizing him.
He’s also taken some related steps to provide more competition in the cable industry. In December 2006, the FCC ordered cities to act within 90 days on petitions from phone companies for new video service franchises and he limited the concessions cities could demand in return for the new franchises.
The move was controversial and cities have gone to court, questioning whether the FCC overstepped its legal authority.
The FCC also banned multiple-unit building developers from signing exclusive deals with any one cable provider, a move that also is being challenged.
But it was Mr. Martin’s attempt to give the FCC greater control of cable content that generated the most heat. Cable providers argue that their market share is decreasing amidst pressure from phone and satellite competitors. Mr. Martin suggested providers’ share is in fact rising and wanted to take steps that could have forced providers to air more channels in which they have no ownership stake.
The lesser steps the FCC did eventually take are being challenged in court.
Mr. Martin further stepped up the FCC’s indecency enforcement that started under his predecessor, fueling a series of court challenges, one of which will be heard by the Supreme Court next fall.
The campaign was helped along by Congress increasing fines for broadcast indecency enforcements tenfold.
The smut offensive has received bipartisan support and comes amidst complaints about sexual content on TV from parents groups and legislators. Last week NBC Universal announced it was re-establishing a family hour of programming.
In terms of leaving a lasting legacy, Mr. Martin’s anti-obscenity push, and the court fights he’s engaged in, pose a risk. If the courts limit the FCC’s authority to regulate naughty content on broadcast airwaves, Mr. Martin could end up hobbling the very effort he has championed.
If some of Mr. Martin’s decisions at the FCC have brought criticism, the way they were executed has brought anger and charges of incompetence.
A panel of the House Energy & Commerce Committee is examining the FCC and has heard charges that the agency has become more political under Martin. The reasons for those accusations are expected to be aired in a hearing.
Whatever the truth, the FCC under Mr. Martin has repeatedly issued major decisions after business hours. It has sometimes started meetings hours late. It has regularly issued commission orders weeks to months after commissioners supposedly voted on final details, which critics call a strong indication that the vote wasn’t in fact final.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have questioned whether the FCC’s procedures are flawed, and House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., has suggested the FCC needs to conduct business with greater transparency.
Mr. Martin has responded by taking several steps to make the agency’s actions more transparent, including listing items that commissioners are considering prior to agency meetings.


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