Committed to the First Amendment

The Other Steel-Toed Boot

The cable industry is now forewarned. The confluence of re-regulation activists Jeff Chester, Mark Cooper and Andy Schwartzman last week at a press conference is a sure sign that the cable ownership issue is heating up. If some in that industry took secret satisfaction from the trials and tribulations at the NAB, which faced an unexpected wave, make that a tsunami, of opposition to long-contemplated rule changes, prepare to seek higher ground.

Cable was being fitted for a jacket with a target on its back last week as a familiar litany of its alleged offenses were ticked off before a sizable press contingent and a C-SPAN audience. That press event, organized by U.S. Public Interest Research Group had a sense of déjà vu about it. The room was different, but the anti-Powell, anti-industry rhetoric was similar to that of a press conference some three months ago. At that gathering, the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America threatened that June 2 would be "only the beginning" or the broadcast-ownership rule battle. Then the deluge.

Don't be surprised if e-mails start flooding the FCC from "average citizens" asking that the commission restore the cap on cable subscribers, mandate ISP access, ask that PUC's and local franchising authorities be given wide ranging regulatory powers, and demand seats on a cable operator's board or enough money to give access channels West Wing-type production values. Prepare to be amazed at the "average citizen's" sudden command of a la carte tiering, leased-access rates and more. Cable had best have its counter-arguments ready and its lobbying ducks in a row.

Lights Out for Bonzo

Back in 1991, the FCC modified its political broadcasting rules to restore the common sense stripped from them in the FCC's 1976 Bedtime for Bonzo ruling, when the FCC held that old Ronald Reagan movies triggered broadcaster obligations to provide time to other candidates. The 1991 commission narrowed the equal opportunities provision to appearances authorized by the candidate after he or she had become a candidate. But by 1994, a new commission, this one headed by Reed Hundt, had put Bonzo back in business. Fast forward to last week and California, which has more fruitcakes than a dumpster on Dec. 26 and now has twice as many gubernatorial candidates as counties. With most of those candidates angling for publicity and many of them out for mischief, Bonzo is taking on the proportions of King Kong. We hope the spotlight exposes its absurdity, not to mention inequity. Since the rule doesn't apply to cable, Terminator marathons could abound on TNT without triggering any obligations, but let a Gary Coleman Love Boat guest shot slip past on a TV station and 135 candidates could come knocking, stop watch in one hand and tin cup in the other. It's past time to put Bonzo to bed for good.