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FCC Sets Media-Heavy Nov. 27 Public Meeting

The heads of four major media companies strongly cautioned Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin against exercising regulatory control over the cable industry. In a letter sent Tuesday to the FCC, News Corp.'s Peter Chernin, Disney's Robert Iger, Viacom's Philippe Dauman and NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker, all chief executives of powerful broadcast and/or cable networks, told Martin and the other four FCC commissioners that "there is no conceivable justification for governement intervention into this marketplace."

Citing "vibrant competition in both programming and distribution" and "the myriad options and alternatives available to to consumers," the media chiefs warned that "ill-considered and unjustified government interventions cannot be permitted to undermine this vibrant American industry."

The letter was sent after the FCC released the agenda for its Nov. 27 meeting, loaded with potent media initiatives. As expected, Martin scheduled a vote for a release of the video-competition report, which means that he either has the two Democratic commissioners lined up, since the Republicans expressed their concerns about an FCC finding that cable has met a deregulatory threshold, or he adjusted the item.

The executives were mainly responding to Martin's assertion that cable falls under the so-called 70/70 rule, meaning that more than 70% of the nation's homes are passed by cable, and that at least 70% of those homes receive it. Under those circumstances, the FCC can assume more regularatory authority. The cable industry said far fewer than 70% of the nation's homes get cable, so the FCC is overstepping its bounds.

Republican commissioner Robert McDowell said Monday that he could vote to approve the report if the 70/70 threshold part were deleted.

Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate also expressed reservations about the data the FCC used to come up with its conclusion, as has the cable industry en masse, which said its subscriber counts and household penetration have actually gone down with competition from satellite-TV providers and telephone companies.

Others -- Media Access Project, most notably -- said, as MAP said in a letter to the FCC Tuesday, that the 70/70 test has been met and that powerful cable operators have “squeezed out independent minority and religious programming.”

The commission is also scheduled to vote on the media-ownership review that has been ongoing for years, but not the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership part, since the chairman is accepting comments on that proposal through Dec. 11 and is expected to vote on that Dec. 18 unless Congress applies sufficient pressure to delay that timetable.

While the agenda does not spell out specifics, the item is described as "concerning initiatives designed to increase participation in the broadcasting industry by new entrants and small businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses."

That is likely the chairman's proposal to allow designated entities, including minorities, women, and small businesses, to lease digital broadcast spectrum from TV stations as a way to give them a broadcast “voice" without the entry costs of buying or building a station.

Minority advocates and Hill and FCC Democrats have been underwhelmed by the proposal, with some picking up on the phrase popularized by FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein that it is akin to spectrum "sharecropping." But Martin likely has two other Republican votes for the plan.

The chairman has also scheduled a vote on his proposal to increase broadcaster reporting requirements to include more detailed accounts of their public service.

Also on the agenda is an item to cut cable leased-access rights, perhaps by as much as 75%.