By Ronald Grover
What a difference a chairman makes. Back in 2001, when Michael Powell first appeared at the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn.'s National Show, he did a cartwheel onto the stage to demonstrate that he intended to shake things up.
And shake them up he did: During his sometimes stormy tenure, the now-former chairman pushed through the lifting of limits on media ownership and pressed for government sanctions for broadcasters that aired "indecent" material.
Fast forward to Kevin Martin's first appearance at this year's cable industry show on Apr. 5. The recently appointed FCC chairman sat dispassionately before the San Francisco audience, sidestepping even the appearance of controversy. Nonetheless, the 34-year-old former lawyer said the indecency issue remains on the FCC's agenda, and that he intends to loosen regulation "to level the playing field for the media to compete in a fair and equal marketplace."
He wasn't specific about his plans, but hinted in his presentation and brief comments afterward that he is looking to the media world to take the lead so regulators won't have to take action.
"We're reacting to what the consumer wants and expects of us," he said, citing the giant uptick in complaints about indecent material on the Internet. "We used to get a few thousand complaints a year. Then the next year it was 100,000, and last year it was a million," according to Martin, who was first appointed to the Commission in 2001.
He said he has encouraged broadcasters to create family hours and monitor their own programming. In addition, he turned aside suggestions that he will expand broadcast-style indecency regulation to the cable and satellite industries. "The cable industry has a similar opportunity to listen to their consumers," he said.
REGULATION BY COMPETITION?
Still, Martin made no secret of his plans to follow Powell's strategy. "Chairman Powell was a great visionary in his view of technology and how to allow media companies to compete," he said. "The Commission needs to continue on with that vision for an even playing field and with a deregulatory, rather than a regulatory, approach."
Not surprisingly, his words met with approval from cable industry executives. "It should be self-evident that competition is a better regulation than regulation itself," said Time Warner Cable CEO (TWX ) Glenn Britt.
But they also got the message that the conservative Republican expects cable to keep indecency from children. "I heard the chairman loud and clear," said Cox Communications (COX ) CEO James Robbins. Cox's cable systems have controls that enable parents to prevent kids from seeing certain shows. "We will just have to redouble our efforts so that our consumers know how they can control what their children are seeing," Robbins said. Even without a cartwheel, the new FCC chairman seems to have gotten his message across.
Grover is BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau chief
Edited by Patricia O'Connell