Fight looms between FCC, cable firms

[Cox News Service]

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin knew he wouldn't be the most popular guy at the cable industry's annual convention here this month.

"I wondered whether or not I would even be invited to attend, never mind invited to speak," Martin quipped before thousands of cable company executives.

He may have been joking -- but just barely.

After years of sparring, government regulators and the cable industry appear headed for a heavyweight fight worthy of an HBO special.

The outcome could determine whether you'll be able to choose the cable channels you want, how much violence your kids see on TV, and what programming cable companies are required to deliver.

Virtually every cable company and all of the industry's 65 million subscribers could be affected.

While Martin was trying to make nice with the cable industry here, the head of the group that invited him to speak accuses his agency of being bloated, overreaching, and in need of a complete overhaul.

"We see an agency whose budget keeps increasing. . . . We have an agency that seeks more regulatory authority rather than less," Kyle McSlarrow, chief executive of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said in a speech Tuesday at the nonprofit Media Institute in Washington.

"And instead of focusing on how to unleash new technologies that would benefit consumers, we find the FCC asking and answering the same questions over and over again," McSlarrow said.

Nearly 60 percent of US households get their TV programming through cable, and the industry has been edging closer to a showdown with the FCC ever since the baring of singer Janet Jackson's breast at the 2004 Super Bowl. The trend has also been spurred by a rise in TV violence.

"I've been in Washington a long time and these content issues are always around, but there seems to be of late increasing focus on them," said William Kennard, who was FCC chairman from 1997 to 2001 and now is with the Carlyle Group, a high-powered Washington investment firm. "And they're not going away."

The cable industry simply wants Martin to butt out.

In calling for an overhaul of the FCC last week, McSlarrow said the agency should be restructured to be more like the Federal Trade Commission, intervening only to protect consumers and only when free-market competition can't solve an issue on its own.

Under his and other proposals, McSlarrow said, "there would be a presumption against regulation, and in fact FCC regulations would sunset in five years."

Some of the toughest talk against the FCC, however, comes directly from executives of the cable industry and television programmers.

Peter Chernin, president of Fox Networks' owner News Corp., called Martin and the FCC's push against TV violence "an example of government intrusiveness at nearly its worst."

Parents, not regulators, should be responsible for what their kids watch and see, Chernin and others said.

For his part, Martin, who was appointed FCC chairman by President Bush in 2005 after four years as a commissioner at the agency, says he has no personal beef with the cable industry.

"I do not dislike cable," he said. "Quite the contrary -- I am an avid cable customer."

article originally published at http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2007/05/20/fight_looms_betwee....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey