FCC: Martin Needs To Move on Cable Caps

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said Wednesday that the FCC needed to move on its year-long review of cable ownership caps.

In a meeting with reporters after the FCC's annual review of the previous year, Martin pointed out that the proceeding was opened in 1999, and said he had told his colleagues on the commission that it should either proceed to conclusion on the item as a stand-alone or, if the issues were similar enough, roll it into the ongoing media ownership proceeding.

Martin had not timetable for when the ownership proceeding would be completed, pointing out that the FCC had held just 2 of six planned field hearings and still had 10 studies to deal with, though he said that he was looking to hold the next hearing in February, if possible, and that the studies should be completed this spring.

Martin said he was fine with either dealing with cable as a stand-alone or rolled into the larger proceeding, but that it was time to do something on cable ownership.

When asked why the FCC didn't have a Y2K-like plan in case the DTV transition hits a snag and viewers could lose service after the hard date of Feb. 17, 2009, Martin said he thought the FCC had taken steps.

The question was in response to the comments of National Telecommunications & Information Administration head John Kneuer, as reported by Multichannel News' Ted Hearn, that the administration had no "plan b."

Martin countered that the commission had been active, including requesting more funding from Congress for a consumer outreach plan. He also said the FCC was implementing policies "that would minimize the potential burden on consumers."

He cited his push for multicast must-carry, though not directly, saying "trying to make sure that all free, over-the-air broadcasting should be carried by the other platforms is one one of the ways we make sure to ease that transition to digital broadcasting."

A reporter said the city of Tampa had complained to the commission about its characterization in the December meeting approving changes to video franchising rules. Relying on filings to the commission on the proposed changes, Martin had said during the meeting that the city had made videotaping math tutorials one of the conditions of a cable franchise there, while the city said that was not true.

Martin said he would check into it, but was unclear on how extensively the FCC had vetted the information before using it to back its franchise changes. Those changes, which mirrored some moves in a failed video franchise bill in Congress, were the fruits of an inquiry into whether the local franchising process was impeding the roll-out of multichannel video competition to cable, whose rates Martin has said have soared since the 1996 act.

Martin is speaking to the Association of National Advertisers in New York Thursday, but said he planned no specific recommendations for changes to the ad industry.

Asked whether the FCC was close to a deal with radio station owners over the issue of payola--several groups were named in consent decrees between record companies and the state of New York--Martin said that the commissioners were still in discussions about what steps to take, and that Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Deborah Taylor Tate had been actively soliciting input on the issue.

On the possibility of satellite mergers, radio or TV, Martin said that FCC rules already prohibit XM and Sirius' satellite licenses to be held by the same company, and that the commission said, when DirecTV was bought by New Corp., that the combination of DirecTV and Echostar would not be in the public interest.

Asked to respond to the comment by National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow that the FCC was in a "time warp" when it came to cable issues, Martin said that the commission takes each issue on its own merits.

The FCC has recently denied a cable industry request for more time to institute a computer-based system for digital cable boxes, has hammered the industry on pricing, and has pushed for an à la carte regime cable opposes. Martin pointed to the lack of network neutrality conditions on the Adelphia merger as one example of where the FCC and the cable industry were thinking in tandem.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.