Kevin Martin on FCBA's a la Carte Menu

Federal Communications Bar Association Holds Annual FCC Chairman's Dinner 12/06/2007 06:20:00 AM Eastern

Some 1,500 communications attorneys, lobbyists and their guests, including a few ink-stained scribes, took refuge from the picture-postcard snow to gather at Washington, D.C.'s Hilton hotel Wednesday night for the annual Federal Communications Commission chairman's dinner.

Kevin Martin

The evening featured a roast of Kevin Martin (including at least one old chestnut) by former National Association of Broadcasters president Eddie Fritts, now running his own lobby shop, followed by Martin's one-liners (and several-liners) aimed at the industry, his colleagues and himself.

Martin said he was not nearly as good at comedy as he was at, say "charming his fellow FCC commissioners," but he managed to draw some long laugh lines with often self-deprecating humor.

His lack of comedy props notwithstanding, the chairman said he was glad to be at the dinner this year because otherwise he would still be testifying before a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing -- a reference to his marathon session before a sometimes-hostile crowd on the Hill.

Martin apologized for having to remove the knives from all of the cable lobbyist's tables -- a reference, and not the last one, to his strained relationship with that industry. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association did not buy a table, though some staffers were there at other tables.

Martin has been pushing a la carte and joked that he had brought some of his problems on himself. "For example, my cable-choice proposal. You know, the one where cable gets to choose to do whatever I say. That might not have been my best idea," he added, to whoops and applause.

Martin said some people were offended by his statement on the appeals-court decision overturning the commission's finding of profanity against Cher and Nicole Ritchie. "Some criticized me for using the seven dirty words in the first five paragraphs. But not everyone was so critical. [Sirius Satellite Radio CEO] Mel Karmazin called me up and offered me a job in morning drive. Not to be outdone, [Comcast CEO] Brian Roberts called and suggested that I do my own show on leased access. I told him that was way too expensive."

Martin said he had come up with a show proposal, That 70/70's Show, a reference to the flap over the FCC's 70/70 rule. A picture appeared on the big screens around the room showing the five commissioners all decked out in white disco outfits. He also talked of another show, Cooking Numbers, flashing a picture of a pot with a book labeled Warren's Data in it, a reference to the data the FCC used in the 70/70 finding, then had to backtrack from when it was called into question. Martin later joked, "When it comes to data, I like to think outside the box."

Given the claims that the FCC is leaking information to selected parties, Martin said he had come up with a "foolproof solution." From now on, he added, "I will write all the items myself. To prevent premature leaking, I won't share them with anyone. The commissioners can just go in and vote for them anytime. Everyone can get to see them at exactly the same time ... when we publish them in the Federal Register [which is when such rules take effect]."

Martin said some of the commissioners might complain about voting on something they haven't read. "But, then again, they complain when they vote on items they have read," he added, saying he would make their job easier by writing their separate statements for them, too.

"It shouldn't be hard," he said. "A little something about the United States falling behind Estonia in broadband penetration, a little something about the item being too deregulatory, a little something about the item being too regulatory." The chairman has been having some trouble mustering majorities, getting criticism from Republicans on his move to reimpose a 30% cap on cable subscribership and hearing it from Democrats for the vote to approve Tribune waivers.

Martin said he had heard the complaints about how late the FCC's public meetings had been getting under way -- the last one almost 12 hours after its scheduled 9:30 a.m. start time. "I thought I would start my next one early," he said, "so, I'd like to welcome everyone to ..." He proceeded to call for a media-ownership vote and declare a 4-1 victory.

With The Late Show with David Letterman in repeats, Martin picked up the slack with a top 10 list of predictions for the 700-megahertz auction of reclaimed broadcast spectrum coming up in January. They included (a paraphrase due to laughing that obscured some of the lines): 10: AT&T will say the outcome proves network neutrality is not necessary. 9: Google will say that the outcome proves network neutrality is necessary. 8: The NAB will say that the outcome proves XM Satellite Radio and Sirius should not be allowed to merge. 7: I will say that the outcome proves that cable should provide a la carte. And No. 1: "If anything goes wrong, everyone else will blame me."

Martin did say that things could be worse, then showed a Washington Post headline: "Chinese Regulator Sentenced to Death."