FCC's ownership czar

Gallant is pondering how things ought to be in the media arena

Paul Gallant's low-key demeanor contrasts markedly with the personalities of his bosses, FCC Chairman Michael Powell and Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree—neither of whom is shy in front of crowd. Although the point man in the effort to revamp ownership rules is no showboater, Gallant has long been a standout, as evidenced by the string of jobs he has been offered.

The first in a line of senior FCC officials to tap him for top staff posts was former acting FCC Chairman James Quello, who named the Rhode Island native common carrier adviser in 1997. "He doesn't come on loud or showy, but he really gets the work done," says Quello, now practicing at Washington law firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding. "He's one of the future bright lights at the commission."

Appointing Gallant to head one of the agency's most high-profile and controversial proceedings, Powell has given Gallant his biggest challenge yet: corralling the FCC's effort to comply with a court order to rewrite media-ownership limits based on real-world evidence rather than the conjecture that has served as underlying rationale.

"It's hard to imagine a job that would be more fun than what I'm doing right now," Gallant says. "We're asking fundamental questions about how things ought to be in the media arena."

His interest in media issues was whetted when, during high school, he worked as a nighttime playback operator for the local cable system. His primary responsibility was inserting local spots over ads supplied with the sports channel's Boston Celtics game coverage. "This was when the Celtics were contending for championships every year. I got paid to do a job I would have done for free."

During college, he worked on a C-SPAN technical crew covering congressional hearings examining the Challenger space shuttle explosion. "By the time I got to law school, I was convinced I wanted to be a communications attorney."

Gallant is certainly getting a chance to show his mettle as a lawyer. In a string of decisions beginning in March 2001, federal appeals judges remanded FCC limits on cable operators' subscribership reach, broadcasters' national household reach, and local-TV ownership. The old rules were based on speculation about concentration levels that would prevent Americans from receiving diverse views about public affairs and other important topics.

To come up with the data necessary to establish new rules, Gallant is overseeing several studies focusing on three areas: the extent to which local advertisers view various forms of media as substitutes for each other, the degree to which different media are interchangeable sources of news, and whether diversity of programming changes as media concentration increases.

"I hope everyone will challenge our studies and do their own," Gallant says. "This isn't meant as the be all and end all, but a way to stimulate fact-based debate about how media markets work and what that means for government ownership rules."

The goal is to complete the studies and seek comment on their conclusions by early October. The FCC will propose changing rules limiting national broadcast ownership, crossownership of local radio and TV stations and of broadcast outlets and newspapers, TV duopolies, dual TV-network ownership, and local radio concentration. The aim is to prepare suggestions for the commissioners' vote by spring. A separate proceeding to set new limits on cable operators' reach should be completed by December.

Gallant says the comprehensive project will be worth the wait. "I understand the frustration, but, once it became clear there were going to be these seminal cases, it didn't make sense to charge forward without seeing what the court thought," he explains. "Now we have clear guidance."