Washington Watch


Powell Makes It Official

FCC Chairman Michael Powell is leaving the FCC in March.

He announced his plans to resign Friday after four tumultuous years at the FCC helm that included a controversial crackdown on broadcast indecency and a failed attempt to loosen media-ownership rules. His stepping down casts into limbo his top TV agenda: speeding the switch to digital television.

Nevertheless, aides said Friday Powell remains committed to holding key votes on TV stations' digital cable carriage and a deadline for reclaiming their analog channels before he leaves. However, his fellow commissioners have been reluctant to support his controversial ideas. Now that he's a lame duck, his power to persuade them is even more limited.

Washington media lobbyists and FCC sources say a number of people with close ties to Bush are under consideration to replace Powell, including former Commissioner Kevin Martin, an ex-White House aide; Rebecca Klein, former head of the Texas Utility Commission; and Michael Gallagher, current head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Court To Tackle Two Media Cases

For most of America, Super Bowl Sunday is Feb. 6, but media lawyers will be watching their version of the big game on March 29.

That's when the Supreme Court hears media's two blockbuster court cases. One will decide whether cable operators must carry rival Internet providers over their broadband networks. The other decides whether file-sharing networks like Grokster Ltd. and StreamCast Networks Inc. can be held liable when their software is used to illegally copy TV shows and movies.

In the cable case, the Bush Administration last week asked the Supreme Court to reject ISPs' demand for access rights and to uphold the FCC's authority to decide whether access rules would be necessary down the road. In 2002, the commission declared it has the right but no obligation to order open access for cable Internet. No access will be imposed, the commission said, unless cable companies block access to some Web sites or otherwise prohibit surfers' freedom.

In the file-sharing case, which NBC Universal TV Group President Jeff Zucker last week called his top priority in Washington, the justices must decide whether to uphold a lower court's decision freeing Grokster and StreamCast from liability when swappers use their networks to illegally trade copyrighted fare like NBC's Law & Order. The lower court said Grokster and StreamCast are off the hook because their software doesn't' actually catalogue shows and music as Napster did before the feds shut it down. Instead, the programs are disbursed among users' privately owned computers.

Powell: Thumbs Down On Digital Carriage

FCC Chairman Michael Powell may have one foot out the door, but he isn't going quietly. Before he leaves, he wants his colleagues to strike a painful blow at TV stations.

Powell told FCC colleagues that he wants them to vote against Paxson stations' petition for full digital carriage rights—a move that would deal broadcasters a defeat on one of their top Washington priorities. If two of the other four commissioners go along, they would vote on the idea at their Feb. 10 meeting. Paxson's request has been pending at the FCC since 2001 and also seeks a guarantee that both the digital and analog channels of a station will be guaranteed carriage while the switch to DTV is under way. The company has asked federal judges to force a vote if the FCC doesn't act soon.