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Powell Exiting FCC

FCC Chairman Michael Powell surprised Washington Friday with the abrupt announcement that he is leaving in March.

Powell is stepping down after four tumultuous years at the FCC helm that included a controversial crackdown on broadcast indecency and a failed attempt to loosen television ownership rules.

His resignation also casts into limbo his top TV agenda—speeding the switch to digital television. Nevertheless, Powell aides Friday said he remains committed to holding key votes on TV stations’ digital cable carriage and a deadline for reclaiming their old analog channels before he leaves.

His fellow commissioners, however, have been reluctant to support his controversial ideas. Now that he’s a lame duck, his power to persuade is even more limited.

Speculation about Powell’s successor heated up almost immediately and some industry lobbyists predicted President Bush would nominate a candidate within days.

Washington media lobbyists and FCC sources say a number of people with close ties to Bush are under consideration to replace Powell, including former Commissioner Kevin Martin, an ex-White House aide; Rebecca Klein, the former head of the Texas utility commission; Michael Gallagher, current head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and Pat Wood, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Powell’s rival for the FCC helm in 2001.

Powell announced his plans one day after President Bush was sworn in for his second term. Powell’s exit from the commission has been long rumored and the President has asked all senior officials to make a commitment to staying through his second term or turn in their resignations now.

Broadcasters worried that Powell will somehow deal a painful blow to TV stations as he’s walking out the door. Last week, Powell told colleagues he wants them to vote against Paxson stations’ petition for full digital carriage rights—a move that would hand broadcasters a defeat on one of their top Washington priorities.

If two of the other four commissioners go along, they would vote on the idea at their Feb. 10 meeting. Paxson’s request has been pending at the FCC since 2001 and also seeks a guarantee that stations’ digital and analog channels both will be guaranteed carriage while the switch to DTV is underway. The company has asked federal judges to force a vote if the FCC doesn’t act soon.

In March, Powell is pushing for a vote on a plan to speed the DTV transition and require TV stations to return their old analog channels to the government by 2009. This plan is highly controversial and his fellow commissioners say he’s never fully described the proposal.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, called Powell "a courageous visionary" who "never wavered in making the difficult decisions.

Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts praised Powell for pushing the broadband and DTV rollouts. "Michael has been uniquely attuned to the direction of technology," he said. By tackling difficult issues Powell made "a permanent impact" on telecommunications.

But Powell was forced to wade into a controversy led him, perhaps unfairly, to be labeled a champion of media monopolies and an enemy of free speech.

In 2002 a federal appeals court said Powell’s predecessor failed to deregulate media ownership as the 1996 Telecommunications Act required. After he and fellow FCC Republicans voted to permit ownership of two TV stations in more markets, let stations buy newspaper in their towns and hike the number of stations one company can own nationwide, another court ruled he went too far.

Powell’s efforts to loosen media ownership limits and deregulate communications in general put him at odds with media activists groups, who energized grassroots campaigns to derail his efforts in Congress and the courts.

Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman said Powell’s biggest failing was his unwillingness to broker deals with FCC commissioners wary of rapid deregulation. "Michael Powell had the right goal - expediting the introduction of advanced technologies," Schwartzman said. "He had the wrong mechanism - letting the big boys do it. He was good at philosophy, but bad at execution. He is a fine speech maker, but a poor politician."

Powell, long a critic of the FCC’s indecency rules, was forced by Congress and grassroots movements to crack down on the industry following Janet Jackson’s breast flash at last year’s Super Bowl. Dragged into the fight, Powell reacted by levying the highest indecency fines in FCC history and urging Congress to hike the limits even more.

Powell’s effort led to attacks from both sides of the debate. Free speech purists argued he was trampling on the First Amendment, while morality activists said he was too weak.

"His reluctance to enforce broadcast decency laws have led to confusion and uncertainty," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the PTC. Bozell endorsed Martin to be Powell’s successor and called him a "stalwart leader on the issue of indecency."

NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker hopes that Powell’s departure makes it easier to work through conflicts over indecency standards. "The key thing we are all looking for is some uniformity."