Editorial: Refreshing Candor

7/09/2012 12:00:00 AM Eastern

Michael Powell frequently keeps his own counsel, but when he
does talk publicly about issues, it is often with candor and insight.
The former FCC chairman and current National Cable & Telecommunications
Association president is one of the most organized
and concise extemporaneous speakers in recent memory.

Last month he had a lot to say about a host of
subjects at a lunch at the Paley Center in New
York, including retransmission consent, navigating
all those 500 channels, anti-piracy legislation
and the Verizon/SpectrumCo deal. He reprised
some of that candor with reporters and at a Hill
hearing on the future of video.

On all those subjects Powell has done himself
and his association credit by speaking plainly
rather than dancing around difficult topics in the
interests of not offending a disparate membership
whose holdings—cable
nets, broadcast nets, studios,
systems, phone lines—give
new meaning to the term 'diversity.'

While some cable operators
continue to highlight
tough retrans negotiations
in their push for commission
action on its open retrans
docket, Powell provided
a voice of experience and
pragmatism born of experience
atop the commission.

There is, he said, a list passed from each FCC
chairman to their successors as they leave office, a list of issues to “stay the hell away from,”
he said, with the sort of Truman-like directness
that he admits sometimes gets him in trouble.
Retransmission consent, he said, should be on
that list.

He spoke of the FCC's limited authority, and
said plainly that he did not expect FCC Chairman
Julius Genachowski to do anything major
about retrans, any more than he had, or Reed
Hundt or Bill Kennard before him had.

That is not what The American Television Alliance
wants to hear, but it is a practical reality.

Cable operators may get more help from the
Hill on retrans, though. As this week’s Washington
section points out, Republican
House members sound serious about taking up
major communications deregulation in the next
Congress, with everything apparently on the
table. If the Senate goes Republican, there might
be both a way, and a will, to weigh in.

Anyone who has tried to navigate cable’s
plethora of channels and VOD offerings should
stand up and applaud Powell’s frank admission
that cable remote controls and on-screen guides
generally suck—yes, once again, Powell’s term.
Cable operators aren’t standing pat, however,
and Powell gives them credit for launching apps
that free their subs to navigate with iPads—as
Powell does at home.

Powell’s straight talk reminds us of the Sinclair
executive who went to Capitol Hill one time and
essentially told a congressional panel they didn’t
know what they were talking about. It was true,
but usually witnesses take a deferential how-high
approach when legislators ask them to jump.

Powell, a former Justice Department antitrust
attorney, could find no reason to deny the sale of
spectrum from companies who weren’t going to
use it meaning cable ops, including his biggest
members) to a willing buyer: Verizon. He conceded
there were more issues with the associated
marketing agreements, but said it would be challenging
to argue against them as well.

His take on the collapse of PIPA/SOPA antipiracy
legislation appeared at first glance to be
a rebuke of the Motion Picture Association of
America—OK, it was, but a relatively gentle one.
But his larger point was one that is instructive for
studios and cable ops. In the digital age, lobbying
cannot resort to the standard playbook. Exhibit A
was Wikipedia’s decision to go dark for 24 hours
to protest the bills, which eventually went down
in " ames due to the scorched-earth opposition
from some Silicon Valley powerhouses. He asked
how Washington would have reacted if, say, a
cable operator pulled the plug to make their political
point. “The world would have been in an
uproar,” he said. Web companies are apparently
able to do so without major repercussions.

Our guess is that Powell’s honesty gains him
street cred with those he must persuade to factor
cable’s economic health and regulatory well-being
into their decision-making. Part of his job is
to blow cable’s horn, but if he does it too shrilly
or off-key, he works against his own interests.
Last week, he was sounding just the right note
of pragmatism.


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