FCC Chairman Michael Powell told a C-SPAN audience last week that the FCC was set up to provide expert judgments, not slug it out in the political arena. If the country wants the latter, he suggested, it should move the FCC into the administration and make the chairman into a cabinet secretary. (There already is one Secretary Powell, of course, the chairman's father, Secretary of State Colin Powell.)
Powell, in an appearance on Washington Journal before the court had ruled to stay the newly relaxed ownership rules (see story, page 1), conceded that his agency was taken somewhat by surprise by the intensity of the public outcry over those rules.
He called the FCC an expert independent agency whose judgments should be somewhat insulated. With only a handful of legislative advisors and press people, Powell said, he wasn't armed for the "fighting and lobbying and politicizing" of a battle against the political forces working to undermine the rules.
"The next chairman or this one, who plans to be here for a while" (there have been rumors that he plans to exit within the next several months), needs to understand that FCC issues are increasingly on the cutting edge.
Asked whether he thought the just-announced NBC/Vivendi deal would help the arguments of those opposed to relaxing ownership restrictions, Powell said yes. But he added that he thought the deal was NBC's attempt to "survive in a digital world" and figure out a new business model given that over-the-air broadcasting is "dying."
Powell pointed to "top programming"—movies, sports and children's TV—that has migrated to cable as a sign of broadcast's slippage.
He argued that stemming the demise of broadcasting had been partly behind the new ownership rules. Over-the-air TV is crucial to the 20% of the population that doesn't get cable and is a vital link in times of emergency, he said.