By: Todd Shields
(Mediaweek) Imagine a world in which cable companies must offer customers channel-by-channel choice, regulators step up their already energized push against indecent broadcasts, networks must air more independent programming, and TV companies cannot buy newspapers.
Such a landscape would move closer to reality if Democrats win this fall. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the party?s presidential nominee, promises a Federal Communications Commission that would reverse looser media-ownership limits backed by Republican President George W. Bush, calling such moves “contrary to the greater goals of democracy.”
Kerry, responding to a question at a minority journalists convention in Washington on Aug. 5, said he would re-impose the ban on same-city ownership of TV stations and newspapers.
In Congress, dramatic change is less likely. In the House, where Republicans are expected to keep their majority, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) would retain the chairmanship of the Commerce Committee, which he gained earlier this year. Barton has been sympathetic to calls for ? la carte choice for cable consumers and has called for setting a firm date to complete the transition to digital TV.
In the Senate, term limits will force Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an acerbic critic of broadcasters, to leave the chairmanship of the Commerce Committee. He will be replaced by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) if Republicans hold the chamber, or by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Like powerful House members, each is considering redrafting the deregulatory 1996 Telecommunications Act.
Lawmakers want to address disruptive technologies such as Internet telephony. But media issues such as ownership regulation and consumer choice are likely to intrude. “Once you open the act, all kinds of things will come into it,” said a House Commerce Committee staffer who spoke on the condition on anonymity.
At the FCC, a Kerry presidential triumph likely would result in the agency?s chairmanship going at least temporarily to Democratic commissioner Michael Copps, an unsparing critic of the looser media-ownership rules proposed by Republican Chairman Michael Powell. Copps also wants to consider limits on network ownership of programming, examine the impact of televised violence and accelerate indecency enforcement. He also says ? la carte may help limit cable price hikes.
He could, for a time, be the only Democrat on the commission since the White House so far has refused to reappoint Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, despite repeated urging from Congress, including an Aug. 6 letter from a bipartisan group of senators.
Without action, Adelstein must leave when the current Congress adjourns. FCC chairmen typically resign as the opposing party assumes power, an action that would see Powell off the commission for the first time since 1997. Copps would become interim chair, serving alongside remaining Republicans Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin. Martin has joined Copps in frequent criticism of what they call ineffective FCC enforcement of indecency regulations.
Several Washington analysts, including Copps allies, said it is far from clear that he would be chosen for a full five-year term as chair. Presidents making appointments need to reward supporters and satisfy powerful regional politicians and interest groups.
“They might get somebody totally out of the box that we don?t know about,” said a prominent lobbyist who asked not to be named.
If the Republicans win, Powell apparently will be in no hurry to leave; his term lasts until 2007. “It?s a matter for him of [asking]: ?Are all the things I want to have accomplished, accomplished??” said an FCC insider. “And when the time comes and the answer is ?Yes,? then it might be time” to resign.
A successor is unclear, although some believe Martin has an edge thanks to his ties to the administration, dating back to his work on Bush?s 2000 campaign.