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Capital Watch

How Necessary Is 'Necessary'?

There is a major disagreement between FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin and the other members of the FCC over how to interpret Congress's mandate to review commission rules every two years and scrap or change ones deemed unnecessary. Martin turns out to be even more deregulatory when it comes to defining what rules are "necessary" in the public's interest than are either his Democratic or Republican colleagues.

In a partial dissent from a report on the biennial review of telecom rules, Martin calls "untenable" the report's definition of "necessary" as "useful," "meaningful" or "appropriate." It was the commission's first statement of how it interprets the congressional directive. Martin, in contrast with the majority, interprets the word as "indispensable." (Both sides cited court interpretations to support their readings.) That means that, in the congressionally mandated review of the FCC's broadcast- and cable-ownership rules now under way, Martin is setting a tougher standard for keeping rules than for creating them and a tougher standard than either the two Democrats or his two fellow Republicans.

The other commissioners wrote separate joint statements (Democrats and Republicans pairing up) in support of the looser definition and arguing that Congress was not intending to set the bar higher for reviewing rules than for creating them.

ACA Says Keep Cap

The American Cable Association has seconded comments from Mediacom Communications to the FCC opposing raising the 35% audience-reach cap on broadcast-station ownership. ACA represents small and mid-size cable companies, such as Mediacom.

While both say they would prefer a marketplace solution, Mediacom and ACA say consolidation has already hurt cable customers in rural areas, with media giants controlling stations, studios and 30 of the 36 top cable nets. Consolidation, they say, has produced rising cable rates to pay for programming, price discrimination against rural and small markets, preferential treatment to DBS at the expense of ACA members, diminished diversity of viewpoints, and an unbridged digital divide between urban and rural. To loosen the cap, they say, would just magnify those "harmful" effects.

If the FCC relaxes the rules, says Mediacom, it should make any new station purchases contingent on uniform programming rates, à la carte options for more-expensive networks, no retrans consent option for stations owned by companies with cable nets, unbundling requirements, and disclosure of rates and terms by affiliated programmers.

ACA also issued a statement last week backing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his call for more à la carte cable offerings. ACA, too, praised the Cablevision/YES deal (see box above).

Correspondents Dinner Postponed

Uncertainty over timing of the beginning of war with Iraq prompted the postponement of the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington last week. The gathering, slated for March 20, has been rescheduled for June 4.

McCain chides cable CEOs

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (above) has written CEOs of the top five cable companies praising the Cablevision/YES sports channel deal as one that "appears to provide consumers with more choice over programming and more control over their cable rates."

He challenged the CEOs "to provide your customers with similar choices, especially with respect to the most expensive programming, like sports, that continue to drive up cable rates." For its part, Comcast said it "has consistently been open to program contract arrangements that provide greater flexibility for our customers."