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Full plate for FCC

FCC Chairman William Kennard is aiming to clear a backlog of broadcast- and cable-related issues from the agency's workload when the commission holds its next monthly meeting, Sept. 14.

Kennard is pressing his four colleagues to raise the controversial issues of imposing Internet open-access conditions on cable companies and establishing public-interest obligations for digital TV stations.

Extending reporting requirements for kids television programming and reconsideration of several broadcast- and cable-ownership rule changes also are expected to be on the September agenda. Rules for making digital television work with cable are on Kennard's list, too (see Special Report, page 42).

There appears to be no consensus for establishing an open-access rule, and the commission is likely to do little more than ask for comment on the need for a rule and what it might entail.

Kennard was forced to begin an inquiry into whether cable companies must open their Web platforms to unaffiliated Internet providers following a June court decision that, open-access proponents say, required the FCC to regulate cable modems under the same interconnection rules required of telephone companies.

FCC officials say they haven't decided whether they agree with that interpretation.

The FCC also is likely to reignite the controversy over broadcasters' public-interest obligations in the digital era. The commission may indicate a preference for new children's-programming obligations beyond the current requirements of three hours weekly and the ban on TV characters from a program featured in advertisements aired during that show, one advocate said. "We want to make sure broadcasters do something more for children," said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education. She said digital stations' interactive capacity should offer more services to kids than simply linking them to marketing portals.

Several sources were uncertain whether the FCC would urge a requirement for free airtime for political candidates. Although Kennard and his predecessor, Reed Hundt, were badly burned when they voiced support for the idea in years past, Kennard may want to rev up the issue in case Vice President Gore wins the White House and Democrats control Congress, in which case prospects for a freeairtime rule could improve dramatically.

On another children's-TV issue, the FCC is expected to suggest toughening the reporting requirements for stations that preempt kids programming for sports and late-breaking news.

The agency is expected to stand its ground on several industry-ownership rule changes approved in the past year-moves that, depending on the issue, are likely to disappoint public advocates and industry officials alike. TV networks will be disheartened that the 35% limit on a company's U.S. household reach will stand. Similarly, radio-station owners will grouse as the new low-power radio service is upheld. Finally, public advocates will be disheartened to see the agency keep new rules loosening radio/TV crossownership and lifting the ban on TV duopolies.