Washington Watch

Ownership, profanity on agenda

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Save the Date

Sharpen your pencils. Get out your calendars. Fall is shaping up to be a busy season for lawmakers, regulators and the media industries, as the government considers major issues involving content control, media consolidation, network neutrality and more.

Ownership Rules

The FCC has a Herculean task ahead: It must review the deregulatory ownership rules that a court remanded for lack of justification, review all its rules per a congressional directive, and throw out any that it decides have outlived their usefulness.

The FCC's first public hearing on that omnibus ownership review is slated for Oct. 3 in Los Angeles. Unlike with the shadow hearings pushed by activist group Free Press that have drawn only Democratic commissioners, look for everyone to make the trip. Also look for the unions to weigh in on the effect of media consolidation on news/entertainment and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH to promote a bigger media voice for minorities.

The public-comment period in the ownership proceeding closes Oct. 21, with responses due Dec. 21. The deadlines had been a month earlier in each case, but the FCC agreed to push them back after Free Press asked for the extra time, pointing out that the Oct. 3 meeting might generate some comments that should be included.

Don't look for anything to happen on ownership until spring, which will give anti-media activists a chance to first gather for their biennial bash of the media industry Jan. 12-14 in Memphis.

And even when new rules have been vetted and passed, a Republican-majority commission will likely have loosened the restrictions. Anti–big-media activists have pledged to take the commission back to court again if the rules look too much like the previous ones.

What Is Profane?

After the FCC persuaded a federal court to let it review four profanity findings it released last March—against stations airing shows from Fox, CBS and ABC—the FCC got 60 days to take another crack at them.

Industry players and the public were given two weeks to weigh in on the review; according to the FCC Website, it received only 10 e-mails from the public. The commission now has until Nov. 6 to respond.

It will likely modify some, but probably not all, of those decisions, perhaps lightening up on the “shit” variations but keeping the errant “fuck” off-limits, or at least better explaining its rationale for OKing “dickhead” but censoring “bullshit,” at least in the specific contexts at issue.

After the FCC weighs in, the same court will begin trying the merits of the broadcaster challenge to the profanity rulings. If the trial restart begins immediately, broadcast lawyers will have until Nov. 20 to respond to the FCC's decision, after which the tennis-like back and forth continues, with the FCC required to reply to broadcasters by Dec. 4, then broadcasters responding by Dec. 11.

The court has said it plans to expedite oral argument, but, for the slow-grinding wheels of justice, fast would be February.

The Breast Is Yet To Come

The Janet Jackson and broadcast-profanity court cases will now move in lockstep.

The Federal Court hearing CBS' challenge to the Janet Jackson case last week granted the network's request for an extension to file its opening brief. The case's briefing schedule will essentially mirror the schedule for briefs in the broadcaster's other challenge to four profanity decisions.

CBS' briefs were due Sept. 27, but now it will be a one-stop filing for both cases. The initial brief is due Nov. 20, respondent briefs due Dec. 4 and replies Dec. 11.

The big date for the proposed AT&T/Bell South merger is Oct. 17. That's when the FCC's 180-day shot clock for reviewing the merger expires.

As was the case in the year-plus Adelphia-deal review, the clock is a guide, not a deadline. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told Wall Street two weeks ago that he thought the commission could be done by Oct. 17. But if past is prologue, even merger votes that make the FCC meeting calendar frequently don't stay there. Martin said he's still trying to beat the clock.

The Justice Department is still considering the merger, and another wrinkle is whether or not FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who used to work for telecom association Comptel, will have to recuse himself. If so, the commission will be 2-2, which means there would likely have to be conditions on the mergers to secure the Democrats' approval.

McDowell told reporters in August that he was operating as though he would have to be recused from the proceeding, given his connection to Comptel. His office last week said he continues to operate on that assumption. Officially, the FCC general counsel's office can unrecuse him if it thinks it is in the public interest, but the expectation currently is that four commissioners will be voting.

Communications Bill in Neutral

A key date passed last week for the Senate franchise-reform bill. Sept. 30 was the date by which the Senate planned to be done with business until after November elections. Left undone was the bill, which would have eased telco entry into multichannel video among other things.

As predicted, a floor vote was not scheduled on the bill, thanks to the controversy over network neutrality that prompted filibuster threats and kept Majority Leader Bill Frist from giving up precious floor time for a vote that could end in a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stalemate. In this case, it would have been Mr. Wyden, as in Ron, the Oregon Democrat who vowed to filibuster the bill unless it contains strong language on Internet-access nondiscrimination.

Nov. 14 is the next date to watch for. That's when the Senate will likely return from its battle of the ballot box for a lame-duck session.

Senators Ted Stevens and John McCain are hopeful a bill can pass then, but the odds are probably better they will have to start over again next session.