Abernathy Talks Change and Choice

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Outgoing FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said Thursday that the FCC she leaves behind needs to make some changes.

In a speech to The Media Institute in Washington, she said she had been wrong to endorse a rulemaking approach that featured open-ended questions rather than getting a better handle on the commission wanted to do, a byproduct in part of the 1996 Telecom Act rewrite, she said, which set some "aggressive deadlines" for commission action.

Instead, she said, the FCC needs to deal with specifics sooner in the process through more staff papers that will sharpen the commission's thinking before it proposes rulemakings.

That may make the process of getting to the rulemaking proposal a little longer, she said, but could help expose holes in their reasoning earlier in the process and would probably not unduly lengthen the time to actual enforcement of a reg.

She said that open-ended approach had impacted the the debate over ownership regs, with too much hashing over the past and fear of the future. The debate seems hopelessly polarized she said, which suggested the two sides needed to talk less and listen to each other more.

Among the issues she thought the commission should consider as it takes another shot at ownership rules:
1. The effect of multichannel video providers.

2. The effect of broadcaster's own potential multichannel video offerings via DTV

3. How consumers are gathering all this new information from different sources.

Abernathy said the commission needed to start focusing on giving the public the tools to sort through that flood of media, saying it would probably have to spend as much time doing that as it has historically spent regulating and enforcing those regs.

"Choice is the antidote to change," she said. "Consumers need to accept that they, not the government, are responsible for determining the media that come into their house."

Does that mean getting rid of the indecency enforcement regime altogether: No, she said, though she also said that, as content control mechanisms like the V-chip and ratings system take hold, the courts will likely get to decide whether the indecency enforcement regime for TV broadcasters still holds up.

She did not see the same challenge to radio indecency, saying there was not comparable parental control mechanism for the aural medium.
Abernathy said some people are wishing for a time when they didn't have to be active monitors of their media. But that time will not come again, she said, and the FCC needs to recognize that and help with the process of giving viewers more information as they assume more control.

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