Policy

Hot Seat Awaits Martin

1/26/2007 7:05 PM Eastern

Washington— For the past two years, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin hasn’t feared congressional meddling while Republicans controlled all the key committees.

Since taking office in March 2005, the Republican appointee of President Bush hasn’t had to appear once before a House or Senate panel for a grilling specifically on his policy decisions or his management of the agency. By and large, Martin has been left to his own devices. The GOP has held a 3-to-2 numerical advantage at the FCC since June 1.

According to the FCC’s Web site, Martin has testified before a congressional panel seven times — twice to support the agency’s annual budget, twice on Hurricane Katrina matters, once on TV indecency, once on phone-record theft and once to seek another five-year term in office.

THURSDAY HEARING

With Democrats in power, scrutiny of Martin is expected to intensify, starting Feb. 1 with a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing where Martin might release a report on the FCC’s ability to define TV violence and its authority to ban its broadcast, except during late-night hours.

The FCC today regulates indecent content on radio and broadcast TV, but not on cable or satellite TV. It does not regulate violent programming.

But the arrival of the TV-violence report now would tend to support the view of some that Martin lets matters fester for many months, if not years. Thirty-nine House members requested the violence report in March 2004, asking for delivery on Jan. 1, 2005. Former FCC chairman Michael Powell left office without producing the report and Martin extended the delay another 22 months.

In other areas, the Martin FCC has moved at tortoise speed.

The agency took 404 days to act on the takeover of Adelphia Communications by Comcast and Time Warner Inc., after the deal sailed passed the Federal Trade Commission with no conditions. Typically, the agency tries to complete a merger review within 180 days.

In recent weeks, Comcast has complained that Martin’s staff has refused to process petitions that would exempt the company’s basic-programming tier from price regulation by local governments.

Last week, perhaps to spare Martin an embarrassing question or two in the Senate, the FCC’s Media Bureau granted a batch of deregulation orders, including one by Comcast for dozens of southern California communities near Los Angeles.

Martin’s last appearance on Capitol Hill was in September to seek a new term. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) stole the headlines by claiming the FCC had suppressed an internal study showing that independent, locally owned TV stations produce more local news than stations owned by conglomerates. Martin said he hadn’t seen the report.

In policy terms, Martin’s toughest moments came in questioning from Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican who reportedly blocked Martin’s re-nomination for several months.

“The real matchup to watch [Feb. 1] in my opinion is Sununu vs. Martin. Ding! Round [two]!” said a Republican committee staff member.

In dealing with witnesses, Sununu can be brash and direct. He accused Martin of seeking to force unwanted programming on cable operators and favoring price controls on cable rates.

ISSUES ABOUND

Other potential flash points are:

  • Network neutrality: Martin opposes a rigid nondiscrimination requirement toward Internet traffic favored by Democrats. Last year, the Senate Commerce Committee killed net neutrality on a tie vote. Democrats hold a one-vote edge on the committee but have picked up three new members who have yet to stake out a position.

  • Media ownership: At a minimum, Martin wants to relax the ban on the common ownership of a daily newspaper and a radio or TV station in the same local market. He’s not so clear on easing rules to allow for greater consolidation in local radio and TV markets. FCC action is still many months away, mainly because Martin has promised to stage six public forums on media ownership. He has four to go.

  • Cable franchising: Last month, the FCC adopted rules that forced local governments to act on cable service applications of local phone companies within 90 days. Local governments angered by the decision are expected to take the FCC to court. They haven’t so far because Martin’s staff hasn’t produced the final order.

September