The chairman elucidates

Powell says he's putting the breaks on an activist FCC and will let the issues 'come to him'
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TV shows too much "garbage" that children shouldn't see, new FCC Chairman Michael Powell said last week, but he insisted that it's not his job to clean up the airwaves. In fact, he pledged in a Feb. 6 press conference, his first since taking the agency's top post three weeks ago, to reverse the activist course taken by his Democratic predecessors and let issues come to him. He also questioned whether there is a "digital divide" leaving minorities and the poor out of the computer and broadband revolution. An edited transcript of his answers to questions from a variety of reporters follows (a more extensive version is available on www.tvinsite.com).

Will you try to eliminate the 35% cap on broadcasters' national audience reach?

If competition were the only issue, I would most strenuously suggest the cap has no purpose. But there are other goals embedded in the Telecom Act, like diversity of viewpoints, that are much more visceral. I'm skeptical that caps benefit consumers in the form of greater and more diverse products. We have to be able to justify regulatory intervention on something more than sentiment.

What are your plans for FCC restructuring?

We have multiple bureaus dealing with the same competitive environments. To the extent one can responsibly combine them so the same set of eyes is focused on them, that's probably for the better. But restructuring is limited by many things, including the need to have changes approved by Congress, the personnel system and the government service system that limits flexibility, and by the rightful and important role of the unions.

Should there be an open-access requirement for cable Internet service?

I really believe this is one of the hardest questions I've seen. The real issue is whether an intervention is timely, premature, late, or will distort.

Some say, "Openness is always good. Why are you fighting?" You know why? Because openness isn't always good. If openness were always good, nobody would be fighting over copyright protection. I am hesitant to suggest that the Internet model should be driven into every kind of communications industry. I don't know that the Internet has produced a viable economic model.

Cable prices continue to rise faster than inflation. Should rates be re-regulated?

I don't think rate increases in and of themselves warrant re-regulation. Look, Americans like TV, and they like multichannel TV, and there are mechanisms for them to express their preferences in terms of what they are willing to pay. We have an increasing amount of competition, particularly from direct-broadcast satellite.

There are a lot of downstream reasons for price increases. Programming, by anyone's honest estimation, is a big part of what's driving rates.

Should the FCC limit violence and sex on TV?

If you look at the top 10 [cable] programs in America, I'm not always heartened by fact that eight of them are WWF wrestling. But I love my countrymen, and they love their wrestling. But I'm always cautious about being judgmental about whether those value judgments, even if they're not mine, necessarily present a problem.

Should the government have any role over TV content? What about free time for federal candidates?

It's very easy to articulate a general anxiety. But I don't get paid to write general anxiety rules. I get paid to write specific ones that have sufficient clarity to sustain judicial review as not being arbitrary and capricious and not just an expression of my preference.

It doesn't mean I don't get outraged. I think there's a lot of garbage on television. There are a lot of things children shouldn't be seeing. But I don't know that I want the government as my nanny. I still have never understood why something as simple as turning it off and controlling children's television access and all the things I try hard to do in my home are not part of the answer.

If we are going to go there, I'm a big believer that it should come from the United States Congress. Congress is meant to represent broadly the views and preferences of the nation. The same thing with free time [for political candidates], which is even more important because it affects the very electoral process by setting those preferences.

Should Congress limit the time allowed for FCC merger reviewers?

I am not necessarily in favor of prophylactic time limits. Competitive policy issues can be complex once you get into the facts. I think you can build a system in which there are regulatory questions raised and at certain points make an affirmative decision to continue, rather than just going on until you're done. I really hope we will be able to increase the pace.

Do you think Hollywood is entitled to restrict copying of digital movies offered over cable?

Everybody wants to bring this issue to us. But this is a big national question, and the place where this is best resolved is not going to be here.

What can be done to eliminate the so-called digital divide that seems to be leaving minorities and the poor out of the digital revolution?

You said the most important thing, the "so-called" digital divide. There is a danger if we suggest, the minute a new and innovative technology comes to market, that there's a divide unless it's equitably distributed among every part of the society. That's just an unrealistic understanding of the American capitalist system.

In the early of stages of innovation, it is going to be the wealthy people who buy $4,000 digital TVs first. Does that mean there is an HDTV divide on the first day they're out there? No. I could say there's a Mercedes divide: I'd like to have one and can't afford it.

I don't mean to be completely flip about it. But ... if your stand is "You can't produce it unless you produce for all, all the time," I'm very worried it doesn't get produced. As this matures, what will emerge are clearer pockets of the problem. When we get those, we can have a focused understanding of what doesn't work and where you can act.

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