FCC Chairman Kevin Martin helped push through two rulings this week - despite opposition from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, pro-business lobbyists, media watchdogs and all of his fellow commissioners. Jim Puzzanghera of the Los Angeles Times says the contentious rulings reflect Martin's go-it-alone style.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week saw two contentious FCC rulings spearheaded by Commission Chairman Kevin Martin. One, effective immediately, maintains the ban on cable companies owning more than 30 percent of the country's pay-TV market, a big blow to big cable, but good news to opponents of media consolidation.
The other, however, was less encouraging to media watchdogs. It lifted a 32-year-old rule that barred newspapers, TV and radio stations from owning each other in the country's 20 biggest cities.
There are still some limits on cross-ownership. If a station wants to buy a paper, there must be eight other independent news outlets, and the TV station can't be one of the top four stations. But by pushing through the two rulings, Kevin Martin managed to alienate small media advocates, cable giants, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and all of his fellow commissioners.
In fact, Jim Puzzanghera of The Los Angeles Times says that Martin's management style has caused someone inside the FCC to dub him "the lone operator." JIM PUZZANGHERA: When Martin unveiled his long-awaited proposal to ease a ban on owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same city, the other commissioners learned about it by reading about it in The New York Times - BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] JIM PUZZANGHERA: - in an Op-Ed that he wrote that morning, which is how everybody else learned about it. Martin said he was just trying to let everybody know, including the public, what his plans were at the same time, and cited the problem the Commission has had with leaks in the past. But that didn't go over well with the other commissioners. BROOKE GLADSTONE: He's also been accused of sitting on data he doesn't like and giving very little advance notice for public hearings, and starting Commission meetings really late, sometimes 12 hours late? JIM PUZZANGHERA: The trains don't always run on time at the FCC, and lately they seem to have come off the rails in a couple of places. Holding public hearings with only seven days’ notice angered a lot of public interest groups and even lawmakers who said it didn't give people enough time to get to these hearings and make their views known.
The Commission meetings have been stalled a lot of times because the commissioners are negotiating at the last minute, which a number of them blame on Martin for overloading the agenda with too many controversial items and then not putting forth his own amendments and changes, until the last minute. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the decisions that came down this week. Martin's rationale for relaxing the cross-ownership rules for broadcasters and newspapers is that it will help save the dying newspaper industry. But if newspapers really are dying, why would broadcasters be interested in buying them? JIM PUZZANGHERA: That's the big question. Analysts say that people aren't interested in buying newspapers right now, and there's little inclination for broadcasters to buy newspapers, and newspapers that are struggling probably don't have the cash to buy broadcast stations. And the argument of the Republicans on the Commission is this may not save newspapers, but if it is problematic and the newspaper industry has complained it's a problem, why not remove it.
But Democrats on the commission and the public interest groups complain that it will lead to more consolidation, and that will make things worse for the average person trying to get local news. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, he has required, in some markets, that a certain number of hours of local news be produced before this cross-ownership can take place. And he's put other restrictions on the cross-ownership, right? JIM PUZZANGHERA: Yes. His main proposal was to ease this rule in the top-20 largest media markets in the country. Outside of the markets, he has proposed to review proposals on a case-by-case basis. And the standard he put in for the smaller markets was a noticeable increase in the amount of local news. But it's unclear how the FCC is going to track that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It also makes you wonder what their definition of news will be. JIM PUZZANGHERA: Exactly. Is celebrity news — is that going to be considered local news? Is repackaged news from some other source going to be considered local news, or will it be actual new reporting?
The whole argument has been, in this issue, the diversity of voices, getting more people out there covering the news so it's not funneled through one or two outlets, particularly on minority issues where a lot of issues affecting blacks and Latinos often don't get covered because you only have one or two outlets and they're not owned by blacks or Latinos. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the cross-ownership rule is one presumably that big media likes. Let's talk about the ruling now that big media doesn't like, or at least big cable companies, and that's the 30-percent cap. JIM PUZZANGHERA: This would be a cap on the percentage of pay-TV households that one company could reach. Right now it only really affects one company, Comcast, which is the largest cable company. They're the only ones close to that cap, with about 27 percent of the pay-TV market around the country.
The idea of a national cap is to allow independent programming networks to get on the air and prevent one company from having enough clout to essentially stop such a network from getting started. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin has been on something of a crusade against the monopolistic power [LAUGHS] of big media companies. He's strongly behind a la carte cable pricing, meaning you could pay for just the channels you want, and he's also spearheaded a recent ruling that prevented cable companies from having exclusive deals to whole apartment buildings. Is Martin a consumer advocate? JIM PUZZANGHERA: Well, in this case he appears to be, although his decisions are largely focused against the cable TV industry. When it comes to the phone companies, he has been much more open to what they're doing. And that's the criticism that the cable TV companies have had.
Generally, the phone companies have gotten what they wanted. They wanted it to be easier to get into the pay-TV market. They got that. Big phone company mergers have generally been approved, and the speculation is that it's because Martin favors the phone companies over the cable companies. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given Martin's management style, do you think that his rulings, and particularly these rulings this week, will simply be undone once he leaves his post? JIM PUZZANGHERA: The courts do not like when administrative agencies don't follow proper procedure. They don't like flawed studies, little notice for public hearings, not fully taking into account public comment, closing public comment periods very shortly before they voted. So there could be problems in the courts. And public interest groups have already said that they're going to challenge this in the courts. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, thank you very much. JIM PUZZANGHERA: Thanks for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Puzzanghera is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times.