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EXCLUSIVE: Kevin Martin – The Exit Interview

Kevin Martin is scheduled to preside over his last meeting as FCC chairman on Jan. 15. As Martin prepares to exit that post with the changing of the political guard in Washington, he talks exclusively to B&C's John Eggerton about his successes and defeats, and defends a regulatory approach that ticked off cable big-time and occasionally had fellow commissioners taking their shots at policies and processes.

Martin remains adamant, even defiant, in his defense of putting pressure on the cable industry to unbundle its programming and control prices that he has repeatedly said are excessive, framing it always as pro-consumer rather than anti-cable. Still, when asked about his biggest defeat, he points to the FCC's inability to conclude that cable had reached a concentration level sufficient to regulate access to programming, then ticks off a number of items that he sees as promoting consumer choice—and cable operators see as making it harder to operate their business.

Martin says he hopes to be remembered for a successful DTV transition that freed up spectrum for other uses like wireless broadband, though he adds that he does not know what the pundits will decide is his legacy. He concedes that he is a tough manager, but only if that means working people hard and getting them to make decisions, and he defends his management style against congressional Democrats who brand it an abuse of power. He insists that his commission has been more open, not less, than that of his predecessors.

The chairman makes no apologies for his indecency enforcement, saying it was for the sake of children. He adds that food marketing and media violence are two other places he thinks the government may need to step in, sounding at times like a candidate for Democratic FCC chairman—he is not, but still won't say what he will be doing after Jan. 20.

Martin talks about all of that and more in this exclusive interview.

The recently released congressional report on FCC processes was highly critical of your management, accusing you of abuse of power and manipulating reports and making punitive staff moves. How do you respond?

The processes here at the commission to set meetings and talk about what is coming up and how the chairman has discretion in running the agency are the exact same as they were when I was a commissioner and Michael Powell was a chairman, as they were when Bill Kennard was chairman and I was a staffer, and when Reed Hundt was chairman. They have been the same processes under Republican and Democratic chairmen.

So, you don't have an agenda, or a hit list that you came in with?

No, but I have issues that I feel are important and I think are important for the commission to try to address. But that is an important part of the role of the chairman of the agency. The report that came out, as we said at the time, did not identify that there were actually any laws or statutes or rules that ended up being broken.

Then, did you view it as a political broadside, given that Republican members of the investigating committee did not support the report?

I think it is very telling that the Republicans weren't willing to end up signing on, and that they didn't actually identify any violations by me.

But it is also important to point out a couple of other things. To the extent that they were complaining about transparency, even some of the public interest advocates would say [I have] been more transparent than previous chairmen. I was the first one to, three weeks before the open meeting, not only tell the offices what they needed to be prepared to vote for, but I started telling the press. I have posted [online] a list of what items are on circulation.

And so, to say that somehow I have been more closed when in fact I have been more open than previous chairmen does seem unfair, and it is telling that the Republicans didn't sign on. And another point: Several of the criticisms of the report [address items that] didn't even occur when I was chairman.

You continue to push for cable program unbundling. Perhaps given the current economic climate, maybe now is not the best time to be pushing cable to remake its business model.

It is exactly the opposite. During the current economic climate, consumers are feeling the pinch more than ever. So, at this moment we are seeing consumers faced with increasing cable bills at a time of economic turmoil for them. This is the very time to be most concerned with the impact these business practices are having on consumers.

OK, let's get the definitive answer on the elephant in the room on this issue. You are accused of being anti-cable and pro-telco. If that is not the case, why do so many people see it that way?

Listen, I think it is the cable industry claiming that, but it is not true at all. When they come forward and they are the new entrant and the competitor, they have asked for a whole series of things to be able to compete with telephone companies, and actually I have pursued those just as vigorously, including access to local numbers and local number portability and interconnection issues. Some of the cable operators were having difficulty in South Carolina getting access to telephone numbers when they signed up new customers. We intervened and said that had to be provided.

I have made sure that we are trying to foster an environment that creates an opportunity for competition on the telephone side when the telephone companies are the incumbents, and on the cable side when the cable companies are the incumbents.

What was your biggest media victory as chairman?

We certainly worked very hard in trying to foster an environment so that other people could come in and compete to address the extraordinarily high cable rates that consumers are paying. So, we had video franchise reform. We changed the MDU [multiple dwelling unit] rules to make sure that people who live in apartment buildings have access to the same kind of competitive options as people who live in the suburbs. We tried to address issues as they related to leased access and as they related to enforcing our rules [concerning] set-top boxes.

All of those rules are going to create a more competitive environment from a consumer perspective, to be able to address both access to content and the pricing issues.

What was your biggest defeat?

Certainly in the media area, the commission not going forward and acknowledging that the cable industry probably has about a 70% penetration and looking at the impact of that on independent programming was a disappointment. I think it is going to continue to harm the ability of independent programmers to get access to cable and to consumers.

But it didn't acknowledge that because initially, the competition report relied on a single source for that finding.

What is important to put into context is that the cable industry is the one that had advocated we use outside sources.

But one of their complaints was that you used a single source.

But we used one of the sources they advocated being used.

What would you like your tenure to be remembered for?

An important component of what I have done here at the commission is the DTV transition; getting all the broadcasters ready and the consumers informed. Moving that issue forward so that we are going to make that transition and it is going to free up spectrum that we can use for other things, like for wireless broadband services. That is a central part about more efficiently using the spectrum and managing our resources wisely.

What do you think your tenure will be remembered for?

I will leave that to you and the pundits to figure out.

If there was one vote you could have gotten two wild cards on, and passed unilaterally, what would it have been?

The issue we didn't make as much progress on as I would have liked is that 70% issue, which was important for independent programmers. I tried to address independent programmers' access through the complaint process reform. I think that is an important component of why we have a [30%] cap on the cable industry. The justification from a legal perspective of the cap is the inability of programmers to get on the platform. In the media space, that is the most important one.

What is the biggest misconception about you?

It is that somehow I have treated cable operators differently than the telephone companies. I think that when people in town don't have substantive arguments, they turn to process arguments. The cable industry, in addressing the arguments that they are charging more every year and consumers are having to buy stuff they don't want, has turned to a process argument that they are being treated unfairly. In reality, I think we have tried to foster environments that allow for new entrants, whether it is an incumbent telephone company or an incumbent cable operator.

What is your advice to the next chairman?

He is going to have to be willing to make those kinds of hard decisions if he wants to actually have an impact and get things done. And it means that a lot of the industry is going to be mad at you. At some point during my time as chairman, every industry we regulate has been mad. The wireless industry has over open access issues and the E911 we imposed for public safety purposes. The VoIP community over 911; the cable industry because we talked about a la carte and consumers having more control over cable prices and content. But I think all of those things I advocated were in the consumers' interest.

But it isn't just industries. At one point or another, it seems all of the commissioners have been angry with you, too.

Yes, and I think it is because I have been willing to form different coalitions with different commissioners when I agree with them. I don't bring a dogmatic approach, a particular philosophical approach. There are times when I agree with the Republicans, there are times when I agree with the Democrats. In both of those circumstances, I am putting forth what I think is the right answer and trying to find out who else might agree with me.

Even some of your supporters have said you have a tough management style. Looking back, is there anything you would do differently in terms of dealing with people?

I'm not sure what they mean, but I think that a tough management style is important in actually trying to get things done. But if that means forcing people at the commission to work hard and make hard decisions, one way or another, then, yes, that is an important thing for me, and for the next chairman.