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Reaping the Whirlwind

An FCC chairman calling for an inquiry into public-interest obligations, saying that the industry has problems and that, in terms of license renewal, everything is on the table. A flashback to Reed Hundt? No. Michael Powell last week in opening an inquiry into localism. If Powell hoped to emerge rose-scented, his critics instead caught a whiff of red herring, while we just smell trouble.

Here's one scenario. By creating a task force and commissioning studies on localism tied to the public-interest standard, while declining to stay structural ownership-rule changes, Powell is trying to provide cover for legislators who want both to support those changes and not appear to be running roughshod over localism. Death by committee is an ancient and honorable form of issue-cide, and there is always the opportunity to counter any proposed new public-interest obligations that might emerge with the invocation of legitimate First Amendment concerns about content regulation.

Here's another: The continued push by some broadcasters, spelled NASA, to undo the 45% cap has created the monster Eddie Fritts envisioned when he tried to back NAB out of the 35% fight. Powell may have been forced by the public outcry to open an inquiry he would not otherwise have opened and which could lead to the reregulatory backlash that broadcasters rightly fear. Insiders couldn't help noting Powell's reference (message?) to Cox and Post-Newsweek at the press conference announcing the inquiry. "The idea that [a Cox or Sinclair or Post-Newsweek] alone are uniquely qualified to make decisions affecting their local community is simply false," he said flatly. We'll just see how local you are, he seemed to be saying.

Powell wants to keep this inquiry and the structural ownership regs separate, but, by the time the inquiry is complete, it might be time for the next biennial review, which could be presided over by a Chairman Martin (or Chairman Copps?).

Either way, there is no telling how much traction such an inquiry will have, whether or not its immediate goal is to preserve the June 2 rules. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Good News

We don't know whether it's the addition of Rick Kaplan to ABC News or the "what have we got to lose" mentality of a network whose entertainment programming has been ratings-challenged at best, but ABC News is getting more screen time. While the other broadcast nets were sticking with usual prime time fare the night of the blackout, ABC blew out regular programming. Then last week, when the UN compound was bombed, we were surfing for the cable news nets and tripped over ABC doing its impression of CNN. ABC's Charlie Gibson was anchoring a special report on the bombing and the President's remarks, complete with the annoying scrolling ticker of unrelated news.

If the low point at ABC News was Disney's dismissive treatment of Ted Koppel and company, the past couple weeks were steps in the other direction.