Powell pans media biz consolidation

Despite his support for lighter ownership regulations, FCC Michael Powell told lawmakers Thursday that he doesn't want to preside over radical consolidation of the media industry.

"It troubles me that's ascribed to me before we've done anything," Powell said during the Senate Commerce Committee's confirmation hearing for FCC nominees. During the hearing, committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said his panel would vote on the four nominees May 24. Confirmation is expected after June 3, when the full Senate returns from Memorial Day break. The other nominees are Republicans Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin and Democrat Michael Copps. The three will join Democratic Commissioner Gloria Tristani, who said she will keep her post until the end of the year.

Powell, who has been nominated for a second term lasting into 2007, insisted that the government would have sufficient power to block mergers that cause harmful interference even if the FCC relaxes or does away with several broadcast ownership restrictions now under review. "Many of the scenarios you postulate would violate the anti-trust laws of the United States," Powell told Sen. Ron Wyden, who questioned whether the agency was leading the country to a day when a handful of media companies would own nearly all of the country's stations, cable systems and newspapers.

Wyden also lamented that the 1996 Telecommunications Act already ushered a wave of media consolidation by relaxing limits on radio ownership, the total U.S. household reach of U.S. Television "On your watch we could have the most radial consolidation of media ownership in our history," Wyden said. Most of the questions faced by Powell and the other nominees surroundeds the "e-rate" portion of the telephone universal service fund. All four committed to enforcing the fee.

Abernathy, a longtime telecom lobbyist, told reporters after the hearing that to avoid conflicts of interest she plans to sell stock she owns in telecommunications companies such as Qwest, Verizon and Vodaphone. The stock of Abernathy's previous employer, BroadBand Office, may be less important. The company filed for bankruptcy last week. - Bill McConnell