Legacy includes 1996 telecom law, kidvid advocacy

WASHINGTON — Reed Hundt, arguably the most influential FCC chairman in the agency’s 60-year history, announced Tuesday that he will step down as soon as the White House can find a replacement.

Rumors of Hundt’s departure have been percolating in Washington for the last week, but aides to the Federal Communications Commission topper vehemently denied until Tuesday morning that any resignation was in the works.

Although there are several candidates waiting in the wings, it is not likely that the White House will find a replacement before the end of the summer.

In a letter to President Clinton, Hundt wrote that he was leaving to spend more time with his children. Hundt said he has no plans for his next job other than to continue work on a novel, “Elm City Diners,” and he plans to write a nonfiction work, “You Say You Want a Revolution.”

Among his key accomplishments during his 3-1/2 years at the FCC was the implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first major rewrite of telecommunications law in 60 years. He also played a leading role in efforts to get broadcasters to air educational kidvid and provide content labels for their programs.

Hundt’s reign at the FCC has been marked by loud and sometimes vicious debates with cablers, broadcasters and even his FCC colleagues.

Tele-Communications Inc. chairman John Malone once told a reporter that Hundt should be shot for ordering the industry to lower its subscription rates. Broadcasters regularly accused Hundt of violating their First Amendment rights with his demands that TV stations air at least three hours of educational kidvid each week, and such suggestions as free airtime for political candidates.

But the issue that angered broadcasters most was hailed by President Clinton Tuesday as one of Hundt’s highest achievements. “Perhaps most importantly, Chairman Hundt helped make the FCC an advocate for our children,” said Clinton in a statement released by the White House. “He invigorated children’s broadcasting.”

After 12 years of laissez-faire FCC commissions, Hundt introduced a regime of unprecedented social activism. In addition to pushing broadcasters on kidvid, he now is urging them to abstain from hard liquor advertising revenue.

His tenure has had a recurring theme: In return for receiving their radio and TV licenses for free, broadcasters should serve the “public interest.” That approach became much more potent in 1994, when the FCC held its first spectrum auction; the event demonstrated that TV airwaves could be worth up to $70 billion on the open market.

Just as the first airwave auctions got under way, broadcasters were lobbying Congress for enough extra spectrum to give every TV station in the country a second channel, to begin a digital TV service. The timing was unfortunate for broadcasters, since the auction and the second-channel request coincided with Congress’ desperate effort to find revenue to balance the federal budget.

While broadcasters told Congress that they should be given the airwaves in return for their service to the public interest, Hundt loudly complained that the television industry was thumbing its nose at those public-interest obligations. If broadcasters did not want to serve the public in exchange for their licenses, said Hundt, they should pay for their airwaves, just like the cellular telephone companies were required to do.

As a result, Hundt — allied with the White House and members of Congress — forced broadcasters to adopt a content-ratings system for programs; required them to air at least three hours of educational kidvid a week and, during the last election, forced networks and TV stations to give free airtime to the leading presidential campaigns.

Even broadcasters, who are perhaps his most vocal critics, conceded Tuesday that Hundt had been an effective chairman.

“Given his agenda, he has been tremendously successful,” said one broadcast lobbyist who often uses X-rated expletives to describe Hundt.

Adding to his power base were Hundt’s extraordinarily close ties to the White House. Hundt attended high school with Vice President Al Gore and law school with President Clinton. Hundt is fond of boasting that he is the only campaign donor who gave to both Clinton’s and Gore’s first efforts for elected office. Hundt also likes to tell the story of attending the Beatles’ first U.S. concert in 1964 with a teenage Gore.

Close to White House

Hundt’s critics complain that he is too close to the White House, especially Gore, noting that the FCC is supposed to be an independent agency that answers to Congress. And there is no question that Hundt’s priorities often coincided with those of the White House on a variety of issues including kidvid, cable rate regulation, liquor advertising, TV content ratings and free airtime for politicians.

There were more than 1,500 FCC votes during his tenure, and Hundt claims the vast majority have been amiable. However, he has clashed bitterly with his fellow commissioners, chiefly the outgoing James Quello.

In almost every case, just as the clashes seemed to lock the agency in stalemate, the White House has stepped in with a statement in support of Hundt, effectively breaking the tie. During the past three years, President Clinton has publicly mirrored Hundt’s support for a voluntary ban on liquor advertising, kidvid rules and free airtime for politicians.

Despite their ongoing differences, National Assn. of Broadcasters president Eddie Fritts issued a courteous response to Hundt’s resignation Tuesday. “While we haven’t always agreed with Chairman Hundt, we have enjoyed his competitive spirit and the robust debate that he engendered by bringing a full marketplace of ideas to the table,” said Fritts.

National Cable Television Assn. president Decker Anstrom also praised Hundt Tuesday. “We appreciate Chairman Hundt’s firm commitment to competition in telecommunications and, most of all, his determination to ensure that television and advanced technologies help serve the needs of kids, families and teachers.”

The cable industry made peace with Hundt after the subscription rate dispute, when he backed the industry’s foray into the local telephony business.

Aside from his cajoling on the TV content code, Hundt has had relatively little contact with Hollywood studios, which are not regulated by the FCC. However, he did oversee the preordained demise of the Financial Interest and Syndication Rule, along with the Prime Time Access Rule.

Like other industry reps, Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti praised Hundt Tuesday. “Reed Hundt is a man of great intellectual force and a good friend,” said Valenti.

Hundt said the novel “Elm City Diners” takes place in New Haven during 1969 and 1970, and is based on experiences that take place before he met President Clinton at Yale Law School.

Fueling speculation that Hundt is leaving government now so he can join Gore’s presidential election effort, Gore wrote Tuesday, “I have been happy to call Reed Hundt a friend since my freshman year in high school … I hope and expect that he will return someday to public service.”

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