A Man of Few Words - Broadcasting & Cable

A Man of Few Words

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The National Cable Television Association Annual confab was expected to
be Kevin Martin's big coming-out party. When the newly minted chairman of the
Federal Communications Commission took the stage on April 5 at San
Francisco's Moscone Center, the 17,000 industry movers and shakers were
hungry to hear how he would lead the powerful regulatory agency on everything
from indecency to deregulation. Instead, the assembled got less than zero.

In interviewing Martin, Stuart Varney opened by asking him to define
“indecent,” but all the Fox News Channel business correspondent could
extract from the FCC chief was this: It's Congress' job to legislate the
definition of indecency, and the “the cable industry has the opportunity to
voluntarily step up” and rein in indecent content. Heaven forbid the chairman
should voluntarily step up and define what he believes the boundaries should
be. As an FCC commissioner since 2001, Martin has talked out of both sides of
his mouth on the issue: He has supported conservative activists who want to
purge prime time of edgy content and supported more-frequent and higher fines
for rule violations, but then again, he has exhorted the industry to police
itself.

In his exceedingly spare remarks, Martin mentioned that, over the last
several years, the number of indecency complaints to the FCC had grown from a
few hundred to “a million.” Unfortunately, Varney didn't follow with the
fact that researching those complaints usually finds that tens of thousands of
them are generated by relatively few sources.

Morning sessions like these at the NCTA convention typically last 45
minutes to an hour. Martin's clocked in at less than seven minutes. Virtually
all the industry titans who took the stage at the Moscone, from Comcast
Chairman Brian Roberts to NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright, engaged in
free-wheeling post-presentation press conferences. But not public servant
Martin. Leaving the stage, he found himself amid a gaggle of reporters shouting
questions; Martin barely responded before being whisked away by an officious
aide.

What a contrast to the chairman's predecessor, Michael Powell. I might
have been disappointed with Powell's turnabout on the subject of indecency
boundaries, which he originally wanted the marketplace to determine. And sure,
by speaking out, he took his lumps. He sparked plenty of bad press early in his
tenure by playing down the significance of the “digital divide” between the
rich and poor, saying there was also a “Mercedes divide” between the upper
and lower classes. Ultimately, however, Powell's forthrightness was the
catalyst for spirited debates about a long list of issues, from media-ownership
regulations to digital-spectrum issues. The industry had little trouble
understanding Powell and where he wanted to lead.

After hearing from Chairman Martin in San Francisco, the industry
didn't know any more about where his leadership is heading than the day he
was appointed. It's not like the guy is new to all this. Martin is
well-versed in the pressing issues before the commission. He repeatedly
complained that Powell moved too slowly on FCC proceedings, such as the network
affiliates' four-year-old request for guidance on their rights to reject
network programs they don't believe appropriate for their audiences. But
since becoming chairman, Martin hasn't said word one about a petition
affiliates have put in front of the commission.

I'm wondering why he even when to the NCTA confab. Perchance to ride a
cable car in the city by the bay? Maybe it was to get his picture snapped with
Disney Chairman Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse (check out our photos from the show
on page 22). Whether it was taxpayers or the NCTA who paid for Martin's trip,
whoever footed the bill wasted money. Martin is scheduled to speak April 19 at
the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. I hope he's
going there to do something besides take in a floor show and play the slots.

E-mail comments to
bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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