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McDowell: FCC Must Be ‘Very, Very Careful’ on a la Carte

Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell said he sees the media landscape moving toward a market-driven a la carte world, “with consumers picking the hour, place and time for accessing content.”

He said the pricing of pay video services is a "fragile economic ecosystem" and the FCC needs to be "very, very careful" as it considers trying to unbundle cable service at the wholesale level. He added that after talking with a number of people, he isn't sure anyone completely understands that marketplace.

McDowell pointed out that the marketplace is more competitive than ever, with a lot of free content out there on sites like YouTube -- sometimes the same content cable is charging people for.

"There is a lot of healthy, positive, constructive paranoia" out there, he said. "As the paradigms are shifting, I think we need to take all of that into account."

McDowell weighed in on that and other topics during a Webinar Wednesday sponsored by Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and Harris, Rules of the Game in 2008. A replay of the Webinar will be available beginning Jan. 31 at 2 p.m. (EST).

Talking about the digital-TV transition, the commissioner said he could not think of any "rational" reason why the FCC would move the DTV hard date of Feb. 17, 2009, or any arguments he would agree with. "We have an auction going on right now selling off those airwaves,” he said. “Once they are sold, we'd better clear them, or else our customers will be very angry if we can't deliver the goods."

He said he was optimistic about the DTV-transition-education campaign. "The dialog has started. I have seen the PSAs [public-service announcements] in primetime on a variety of channels," he added, "and I think that's terrific."

Commenting on the FCC's $1.4 million fine against ABC stations for airing a naked butt on NYPD Blue, McDowell said he "thought that particular scene was not what Congress envisioned being broadcast before 10 p.m."

Asked if he would give the FCC the power to regulate content if he were writing the law, he said: "I think so. Let's wait to see what the Supreme Court says regarding our other appeal. It's always healthy to have court clarification of this particular issue. I try to be true to the First Amendment, but at the same time, Congress just a year-and-a-half ago really underscored this as part of the statue by increasing the fines tenfold. So the directly elected representatives of the American people, in an overwhelming and bipartisan vote, said this was important to them. And we are charged with carrying that out. The people have spoken, and we will try to do our best to make these tough calls.”

The commissioner added that, coincidentally, the character whose buttocks are shown in the NYPD Blue episode is named Connie McDowell. "No relation," he said.

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.