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FCC's McDowell Warns Broadcasters About Sirius Argument

Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell suggested on Thursday that if the NAB can convince regulators that terrestrial broadcasting and satellite are something less than direct competitors, it could have  implications for the loosening of media ownership rules.

He also said he thought concerns over the current timetable for informing consumers about the transition to digital were overblown.

In a question-and-answer session with broadcasters at the National Association of Broadcasters legislative meeting  in Washington, McDowell suggested that if broadcasters are successful in making the argument that satellite radio operators Sirius/XM are not direct and interchangeable competitors, at least on the national level, that could affect the FCC decision on allowing broadcasters to own more stations.

When asked whether NAB's argument could jeopardize the loosening of radio ownership rules, McDowell said that while he thought the two issues were related, it ultimately depended on how you define the market.

"If we say that XM and Sirius should not merge because there is not sufficient competition, does that mean there is not sufficient competition overall?" McDowell asked.   McDowell added that he was interested in asking questions rather than drawing conclusions.

NAB argues that while there is audio competition in local markets, terrestrial does not compete with Satellite radio on a national, mobile basis. NAB President David Rehr has made the argument that XM/Sirius would use its market power over the national audio space to unfairly cross-subsidize competition for local listeners.

McDowell said he thought broadcasters were doing a "terrific job" on the DTV transition. Responding to some criticism from the Hill of the status of the consumer education campaign, McDowell argued that it was no surprise a lot of people weren't aware of the transition yet. He argued that with two years to go, it was too soon for a multimillion-dollar ad campaign.

On the TV violence issue , McDowell said that if Congress voted to mandate a la carte--as a way to give parents more control of TV content--he said he would support it. He also said he wasn't sure that was the best way to address the problem. "I think in the long run, technology and competition are going to solve this problem," he said. He cited the TiVo kid zone as one of the technological tools parents have to already control their kids TV viewing.

That puts McDowell somewhat at odds with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who has stumped for a la carte as a parental control tool. But McDowell said that "we're already living in a market-created a la carte world," saying it was in its early stages but getting "better and better at empowering parents."

He said that it was tough enough for the FCC to navigate the indecency issue. McDowell, the parent of two small children, called the effort to address violence "noble," but added that "getting there in a reasonable, legal, constitutional way is very difficult."