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FCC Chief Still Standing, if on Shifting Ground

Kevin J. Martin's battle with the cable industry threatens to leave him with fewer allies as he faces greater scrutiny.
Kevin J. Martin's battle with the cable industry threatens to leave him with fewer allies as he faces greater scrutiny. (Joshua Roberts - Bloomberg News)

"Of course, in hindsight, I would have probably proposed something else because what I proposed didn't garner the support of a majority of the commission," Martin said in an interview. He reiterated that he has no agenda against the cable industry.

"Tomorrow is another issue and another battle," said Martin, who likely has a little more than a year left on the job, as FCC chairmen typically resign when a new administration enters the White House.

Bruises are nothing new to Martin or FCC chairmen. He was blistered by Republicans over his handling of a wireless spectrum proposal last summer and during a battle over local phone deregulation several years ago. He has endured public scoldings by fellow commissioners Adelstein and Michael J. Copps, a Democrat. Likewise, firestorms over indecency fines and media ownership dogged previous FCC chair Michael K. Powell, as a controversy over unlicensed radio stations did William E. Kennard before him.

Martin's proposed cable crackdown was also undermined by a fast and concerted lobbying effort.

The National Cable & Telecommunication Association, the industry's trade association, has been scrambling for two weeks to defeat Martin's proposal.

The biggest effort came Nov. 15 when the NCTA board was in town for a regular meeting. Leaders of the association took the unusual step of truncating the proceedings to one breakfast meeting and then sent the cable executives out to lobby official Washington against Martin's initiatives. The organization rented at least four cars to transport them.

Executives from the likes of Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications met with all of the FCC commissioners except Martin. They also met with about 30 lawmakers on Capitol Hill, most of them from the commerce committees that have jurisdiction over the FCC. The lawmakers included John Dingell (D-Mich.), Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in the House, and Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in the Senate.

Lobbyists for the NCTA also put on a full-court press and pressured the Republican FCC commissioners by generating letters from Republican lawmakers. One letter was signed by three Republicans on the House Commerce Committee. The second had four Republican senators. Ten House Democrats led by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) also wrote the FCC at the urging of the NCTA to say that the proposed rule would hurt diversity on cable.

"It's a textbook example of how a sophisticated trade association can mobilize resources on short notice and stave off a major defeat," said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, which opposed the cable industry position.

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