Activist Grabs Gavel

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), an outspoken critic of violent and indecent television programming, last Monday was named chairman of the Senate committee that will approve the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and process nearly all legislation affecting cable operators and programmers.

Rockefeller, who will head the Commerce Committee beginning in January, issued a statement that alluded to broadband deployment as one of his ongoing priorities. But there was no mention of the FCC's pending leadership change and no hint on the probable direction of legislation intended to deal with content harmful to children.

“As Commerce Committee chairman I intend to focus the committee's attention on strengthening our economy, and improving our security, building nationwide technology infrastructure, promoting clean energy research, protecting American consumers and instituting comprehensive oversight,” Rockefeller said.

In March 2005, Rockefeller introduced a bill (S. 616) with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that would have required the FCC at some point to ban TV stations and cable operators from airing sexually suggestive and excessively violent content except during late-night hours, most likely 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Hutchison is the commerce panel's most senior Republican.

In 2007, Rockefeller planned on re-introducing the bill after the FCC found in a report that TV violence has a negative impact on children. The bill, never introduced, would not have required cable operators to sell programming on an a la carte basis instead of in packages with dozens of channels.

“It's pretty likely that Rockefeller will bring a more active approach to telecom-media legislation and FCC oversight,” said Paul Gallant, senior vice president of telecommunications and media at the Stanford Group.

Incumbent FCC chairman Kevin Martin, an appointee of President Bush, is expected to step down in a few weeks. President Barack Obama is also expected to name either Michael Copps or John Adelstein, both FCC Democrats, as interim chairman.

Obama's permanent FCC chairman will need Commerce Committee approval, a process which could take months.

Rockefeller takes control of the chairman's gavel on Jan. 6, 2009, the date when the 111th Congress officially convenes. He has chosen longtime aide Ellen L. Doneski as the committee's new staff director, his statement said.