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Editorial: RefreshingCandor

Michael Powell frequently keeps his own counsel, but when he does talk publicly about issues, it is often with candor and insight. The former FCC chairman and current National Cable & Telecommunications Association president is one of the most organized and concise extemporaneous speakers in recent memory.

Last month he had a lot to say about a host of subjects at a lunch at the Paley Center in New York, including retransmission consent, navigating all those 500 channels, anti-piracy legislation and the Verizon/SpectrumCo deal. He reprised some of that candor with reporters and at a Hill hearing on the future of video.

On all those subjects Powell has done himself and his association credit by speaking plainly rather than dancing around difficult topics in the interests of not offending a disparate membership whose holdings—cable nets, broadcast nets, studios, systems, phone lines—give new meaning to the term 'diversity.'

While some cable operators continue to highlight tough retrans negotiations in their push for commission action on its open retrans docket, Powell provided a voice of experience and pragmatism born of experience atop the commission.

There is, he said, a list passed from each FCC chairman to their successors as they leave office, a list of issues to “stay the hell away from,” he said, with the sort of Truman-like directness that he admits sometimes gets him in trouble. Retransmission consent, he said, should be on that list.

He spoke of the FCC's limited authority, and said plainly that he did not expect FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to do anything major about retrans, any more than he had, or Reed Hundt or Bill Kennard before him had.

That is not what The American Television Alliance wants to hear, but it is a practical reality.

Cable operators may get more help from the Hill on retrans, though. As this week’s Washington section points out, Republican House members sound serious about taking up major communications deregulation in the next Congress, with everything apparently on the table. If the Senate goes Republican, there might be both a way, and a will, to weigh in.

Anyone who has tried to navigate cable’s plethora of channels and VOD offerings should stand up and applaud Powell’s frank admission that cable remote controls and on-screen guides generally suck—yes, once again, Powell’s term. Cable operators aren’t standing pat, however, and Powell gives them credit for launching apps that free their subs to navigate with iPads—as Powell does at home.

Powell’s straight talk reminds us of the Sinclair executive who went to Capitol Hill one time and essentially told a congressional panel they didn’t know what they were talking about. It was true, but usually witnesses take a deferential how-high approach when legislators ask them to jump.

Powell, a former Justice Department antitrust attorney, could find no reason to deny the sale of spectrum from companies who weren’t going to use it meaning cable ops, including his biggest members) to a willing buyer: Verizon. He conceded there were more issues with the associated marketing agreements, but said it would be challenging to argue against them as well.

His take on the collapse of PIPA/SOPA antipiracy legislation appeared at first glance to be a rebuke of the Motion Picture Association of America—OK, it was, but a relatively gentle one. But his larger point was one that is instructive for studios and cable ops. In the digital age, lobbying cannot resort to the standard playbook. Exhibit A was Wikipedia’s decision to go dark for 24 hours to protest the bills, which eventually went down in " ames due to the scorched-earth opposition from some Silicon Valley powerhouses. He asked how Washington would have reacted if, say, a cable operator pulled the plug to make their political point. “The world would have been in an uproar,” he said. Web companies are apparently able to do so without major repercussions.

Our guess is that Powell’s honesty gains him street cred with those he must persuade to factor cable’s economic health and regulatory well-being into their decision-making. Part of his job is to blow cable’s horn, but if he does it too shrilly or off-key, he works against his own interests. Last week, he was sounding just the right note of pragmatism.