FCC Chair Forced to Compromise on Cable Regulation

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Federal Communications Commissions voted for a set of watered-down cable regulations late last night, as increasing tensions among the agency's five members allowed the industry to largely avoid tough rules.

Under the new regulations, cable companies will for the first time have to give the FCC the most complete data available on how many subscribers they have. The FCC also lowered the price that cable systems charge smaller programmers, such as religious community broadcasters, to lease space on unused cable channels.

Yesterday's meeting followed a flurry of late-night activity Monday and throughout the day Tuesday, as commissioners sparred with embattled FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who they say has rushed the commission toward unmerited action on cable and other issues.

The fight over new cable regulations was so contentious that yesterday's meeting began 12 hours after its scheduled start, as Martin and the four other commissioners edited and re-edited the proposals, and concluded after 11 p.m.

Martin is taking heat from the cable industry as well, which accuses him of unfairly trying to crack down. The industry says Martin is attempting regulatory maneuvers designed to achieve his ultimate goal: requiring cable companies to offer their channels on an a la carte basis, allowing subscribers to buy only the channels they want.

Martin has said consumers should not have to pay for channels they may find objectionable, such as MTV or FX. The cable industry says that adopting an a la carte system would actually raise prices and limit selection by forcing a number of lesser-watched channels off the air.

Leading up to last night's meeting, Martin fought with the cable industry and some commissioners over a new study he championed that suggests that more than 70 percent of Americans who can subscribe to large cable packages do so, opening the door for long-dormant federal regulations designed to keep cable companies from growing too big.

If it were determined that the 70 percent threshold has been met, the cable industry could face a raft of regulations, including a national ownership cap.

But after days of struggle, Martin capitulated last night and acknowledged that the new study may not be definitive enough to trigger new regulations. Instead, he and the four other commissioners compromised on a measure that would require the cable industry to provide more detailed information than it currently does on its number of subscribers.

"I think it's important that the commission is taking steps not only to try to provide the opportunity for diverse programmers to get on cable but also to make sure we're gathering the most accurate and reliable data to determine what conditions exist in the video industry today," Martin said in an interview last night.

Increasing tensions within the five-member commission boiled over leading up to last night's vote. Martin received the harshest criticism from fellow Republican commissioner Robert M. McDowell and Democrat Jonathan S. Adelstein.

Both said they were prevented from seeing the FCC's data on cable subscribers until they asked Martin's office for the data Monday night. They showed that only 54 percent of U.S. households that can get cable subscribe to large packages -- a number well below the 70 percent threshold required for new regulations.

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