FCC Tables Regulating Cable

The Federal Communications Commission was supposed to meet to discuss topics ranging from media ownership to low-power FM rules. But when the FCC chairman made clear he wanted a vote on whether the FCC may regulate cable television, the Washington lobbies swung into action.

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The Federal Communications Commission was supposed to hold a meeting yesterday to discuss a range of topics from media ownership rules to low-power FM. But when the FCC chairman made it clear that he wanted the commission to vote on whether the FCC may regulate cable television, something went wrong.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: The first whiff of trouble came in an early morning e-mail from the FCC announcing that the 9:30 a.m. start time had been pushed back to 11. Reporters were advised to be at the commission by 10:40 sharp. But by evening, the commissioners were still locked in a close-door session, and Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was at the end of his rope.

Mr. JONATHAN ADELSTEIN (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): All day long we've been going back and forth on these issues - we've been trying to negotiate. This is a complete chaos around here. It's become a mess.

ULABY: That was echoed by Commissioner Robert McDowell. By the time he spoke at the public meeting, it was well past 10 p.m.

Mr. ROBERT McDOWELL (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): Today's report has taken an interesting journey in the past few weeks, and even the past few hours. For starters, it's about nine months overdue to Congress. Then it appeared that the commission was going to ignore a mountain of evidence from independent analysts and prior commission findings to favor a solitary study.

ULABY: McDowell was referring to a study about cable subscription rates that could justify giving the FCC extraordinary new powers over cable TV. Right now, unlike broadcast television, cable is not regulated by the FCC.

Back in 1984 when cable was exotic and new, the regulatory powers that were came up with a formula. When 70 percent of American households were able to get cable - a huge number back then - and 70 percent of those households subscribed, the FCC could begin to regulate.

For yesterday's meeting, Chairman Kevin Martin relied on a single study to argue that benchmarks had been reached.

Mr. ADELSTEIN: The chairman wanted to reach the 70 percent level so he only gave us the one statistic.

ULABY: Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

Mr. ADELSTEIN: There was an attempt to manipulate the data to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the commissioners themselves and to hide our own FCC data from the commissioners.

ULABY: Adelstein says, usually, commissioners based their decision on multiple sources of data. At last night's meeting, Martin defended the sole study he gave the commission, saying it was the most accurate; he denied suppressing other information.

Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): It wasn't asked for until yesterday. Indeed, the commissioners' offices only asked yesterday afternoon after lunch for what the data would - what was - what it was, and it was provided yesterday after they had asked.

ULABY: Martin has long been a proponent of cable ala carte, which would allow consumers to buy only the channels they want.

John Eggerton is the Washington bureau chief for Broadcast and Cable magazine. He says an empowered FCC would have let Martin introduce ala carte.

Mr. JOHN EGGERTON (Washington Bureau Chief, Broadcast and Cable Magazine): I think he believes that cable is this ubiquitous force, and that he believes that some of the content is inappropriate for some families. And he says he wants to give them more control, and that is basically behind, I think, his push for ala carte.

ULABY: The FCC ended its public meeting just before midnight with rulings on low-power FM, local TV programming, and a request for more data, so the commissioners can make a more informed decision about cable.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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