Can we get you a chair?
Michael Powell is now the clear front-runner for the chairmanship of the FCC. While maintaining a judicious silence on that prospect, he did nothing to dispel the assessment with a policy speech on Dec. 8 that had all the markings of a State of the Communications Industry address and blueprint for a regulatory course for the next chairman. The speech can be found in full at Powell's Web site at FCC.gov. But its general thrust is that analog-digital convergence, what he terms the Broadband Digital Migration, is radically altering the communications landscape. "The challenge for us," says Powell, "is to make a similar leap from analog-rooted regulations to ones that are applicable and relevant to the digital environment."
We've been a big fan of Powell since his bold speech to The Media Institute in April 1998, when he used phrases like "subvert the Constitution" to describe broadcasters' relegation to lesser First Amendment status and expressed his disdain for the scarcity rationale in a communications landscape crowded with choices.
If this election has taught us anything, it's don't count your chickens before they have been recounted by machine, counted by hand (or not), challenged by a lower court, overturned by a higher court, then overturned again by the highest court. In that spirit, we will not give the chairmanship to Powell before the Bush administration does. But we can say that, as a capable, thoughtful regulator with a solid grasp of issues, he would be a good choice for the job. If past is prologue, he would be an articulate advocate for a "less is more" regulatory philosophy we generally support. How effective he would be at creating the regulatory revolution he outlines depends on whether he can build a consensus for solutions from the hot seat as capably as he has diagnosed the problems from a lesser, more protected vantage.
Can we give you a hand?
In what will likely be the waning days of his chairmanship, William Kennard continues to push for media diversity. Last week, he renewed his call for mechanisms to increase the number of women and minorities who control media companies. We're on the same page.
As we said earlier this year when Clear Channel sold more than a third of its stations (31) to minority buyers, minorities are under represented in broadcast ownership because they were not in the front of the line, or were effectively excluded from the line, when broadcast licenses were first handed out. It's a past wrong that still begs for correction.
That's why we favor legislation reinstating the tax-certificate policy (Sen. John McCain, who co-crafted a bill last session with some help from Commissioner Michael Powell, plans to reintroduce it). Not only does such a policy create an additional incentive to sell to minorities, but it seems fairer to the stockholders of media companies that, whether out of a progressive social awareness or the desire to get a merger past federal agencies, sell to minorities, sometimes at a discount. Giving those companies a tax break would allow them to sell to minority buyers without shortchanging stockholders. We also support the search for new funding mechanisms to bankroll minorities (to supplement the fund already seeded by some major broadcasters) and share the desire for a definition of minority ownership that guards against minorities' being used as fronts (a practice that helped kill the original tax-certificate policy).
We continue to believe that giving minorities the support and opportunity to succeed in the existing band is preferable to creating a low-power radio service whose reach is small but whose potential to interfere with existing stations is large.