Kevin Martin's Challenge - Broadcasting & Cable

Kevin Martin's Challenge

New FCC chairman could pose problem for Big Media
Author:
Publish date:

When people meet Kevin Martin, the first thing they notice is a boyish face that appears much younger than his 38 years. But the youthful looks belie an ambition that has driven him from Harvard Law School to presidential aide and, now, to his latest job as chairman of the FCC.

At the FCC, where he has been a commissioner for four years, Martin staunchly defended local broadcasters' demands for more say over their contracts with the major networks and for expanded cable-carriage rights in the digital world. Now that President Bush has picked him as the next FCC chairman, Martin has the power to make sure those pleas aren't pushed aside as they have been by predecessor Michael Powell.

Martin was widely regarded as the president's choice. He also was the favorite of Bush's social-conservative allies because of his strong support for Washington's attack on broadcast indecency. He takes over as the FCC and Congress are midstream in a number of major proceedings that will impact the TV business. Topping Martin's television agenda will be continuing the FCC's campaign to punish broadcasters that violate indecency restrictions, completing the digital-television transition, and settling allegations that the networks have abused their market leverage over affiliated stations.

The commissioner-turned-chief must steer the FCC's upcoming review of broadcast-ownership rules and will likely be charged with implementing a major rewrite of telecommunications laws that Congress is expected to pass sometime in 2006. Martin favored broad deregulation of broadcast-ownership limits in 2003, and the rule relaxation he supported was overruled by federal judges last summer.

Martin favors letting owners control two or three stations in more markets, eliminating the ban on crossownership of stations and newspapers in the same town. That deregulation is most sought by network affiliates and independent station owners. For his plan to survive inevitable court challenges, Martin and the FCC staff intend to dig up the economic data to convince federal judges that consumers' viewing and listening choices or their access to news and other important information won't be harmfully diminished by placing more media outlets in fewer hands.

Worrisome choice

Jonathan Rintels of the Center for Creative Voices in Media said Martin's support for indecency regulation coupled with his willingness to allow more media consolidation made him a worrisome choice for public advocates.

“Mr. Martin's support of increasing media concentration and consolidation, as well as his support for expanded government regulation of program content that some find objectionable, are cause for concern not only to creative artists but, more importantly, to the American public.”

Martin, a North Carolina native, is perceived as a strong supporter of local broadcasters and large TV-station groups in the conflicts with the big networks and cable operators.

“Kevin Martin is the right person at the right time to lead the FCC,” says Eddie Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Family Viewing Hour

Martin's biggest challenge in dealing with the industry will be to continue good relations even as he tries to make good on calls for bigger fines against inappropriate programming. Martin has called repeatedly on broadcasters to voluntarily reestablish a time slot dedicated to family-friendly shows.

“Parents often complain that there is not enough broadcast programming that is suited for family viewing,” Martin said late last year when the FCC set kids-programming rules for digital TV. “This is why I have long advocated a return of the Family Viewing Hour.”

Martin's determination to clean up prime time will likely hit the networks hardest. Not only does he want them to carve out a family-viewing block, but he favors giving network affiliates' more power to reject network reality shows and other fare that station managers decide are inappropriate for their communities. Martin harshly criticized Powell for refusing to rule on the affiliates' four-year-old petition seeking clearer authority to shun TV series and individual episodes that they believe their viewers would find offensive.

Even though affiliates groups' latest contracts with the networks appear to have resolved differences for now, the affiliates still want the FCC to weigh in should the fights flare up in the future. Martin agrees, noting that the FCC proposed to fine affiliates that aired a Fox Married by America episode featuring strippers at bachelor and bachelorette parties.

A potential fight is also brewing between cable operators and Martin. When the FCC voted down broadcasters' request for guaranteed cable carriage of the new channels that going digital allows each station to add, Martin was the lone dissent favoring “must-carry” for broadcasters.

Powell's departure and Martin's elevation leaves a seat open. Among the top contenders: former Texas utility regulator Rebecca Klein, National Telecommunications and Information Administration chief Michael Gallagher and Earl Comstock, former aide to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens.

Related

The Fritts Years

After an awesome 23-year run, NAB chief Eddie Fritts is about to step down. His record is awesome—but not flawless. He helped the industry shed onerous rules limiting the size and power of radio- and TV-station owners. At the end, however, he couldn't repair fissures that have divided broadcasters in fundamental ways.