A Man of Few Words
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/10/2005 8:00:00 PM
The National Cable Television Association Annual confab was expected to be Kevin Martin's big coming-out party. When the newly minted chairman of the Federal Communications Commission took the stage on April 5 at San Francisco's Moscone Center, the 17,000 industry movers and shakers were hungry to hear how he would lead the powerful regulatory agency on everything from indecency to deregulation. Instead, the assembled got less than zero.
In interviewing Martin, Stuart Varney opened by asking him to define “indecent,” but all the Fox News Channel business correspondent could extract from the FCC chief was this: It's Congress' job to legislate the definition of indecency, and the “the cable industry has the opportunity to voluntarily step up” and rein in indecent content. Heaven forbid the chairman should voluntarily step up and define what he believes the boundaries should be. As an FCC commissioner since 2001, Martin has talked out of both sides of his mouth on the issue: He has supported conservative activists who want to purge prime time of edgy content and supported more-frequent and higher fines for rule violations, but then again, he has exhorted the industry to police itself.
In his exceedingly spare remarks, Martin mentioned that, over the last several years, the number of indecency complaints to the FCC had grown from a few hundred to “a million.” Unfortunately, Varney didn't follow with the fact that researching those complaints usually finds that tens of thousands of them are generated by relatively few sources.
Morning sessions like these at the NCTA convention typically last 45 minutes to an hour. Martin's clocked in at less than seven minutes. Virtually all the industry titans who took the stage at the Moscone, from Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts to NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright, engaged in free-wheeling post-presentation press conferences. But not public servant Martin. Leaving the stage, he found himself amid a gaggle of reporters shouting questions; Martin barely responded before being whisked away by an officious aide.
What a contrast to the chairman's predecessor, Michael Powell. I might have been disappointed with Powell's turnabout on the subject of indecency boundaries, which he originally wanted the marketplace to determine. And sure, by speaking out, he took his lumps. He sparked plenty of bad press early in his tenure by playing down the significance of the “digital divide” between the rich and poor, saying there was also a “Mercedes divide” between the upper and lower classes. Ultimately, however, Powell's forthrightness was the catalyst for spirited debates about a long list of issues, from media-ownership regulations to digital-spectrum issues. The industry had little trouble understanding Powell and where he wanted to lead.
After hearing from Chairman Martin in San Francisco, the industry didn't know any more about where his leadership is heading than the day he was appointed. It's not like the guy is new to all this. Martin is well-versed in the pressing issues before the commission. He repeatedly complained that Powell moved too slowly on FCC proceedings, such as the network affiliates' four-year-old request for guidance on their rights to reject network programs they don't believe appropriate for their audiences. But since becoming chairman, Martin hasn't said word one about a petition affiliates have put in front of the commission.
I'm wondering why he even when to the NCTA confab. Perchance to ride a cable car in the city by the bay? Maybe it was to get his picture snapped with Disney Chairman Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse (check out our photos from the show on page 22). Whether it was taxpayers or the NCTA who paid for Martin's trip, whoever footed the bill wasted money. Martin is scheduled to speak April 19 at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. I hope he's going there to do something besides take in a floor show and play the slots.
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