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Rewiring the FCC

Variety Editorial

Industry types watching the dramatic post-election cabinet shakeup might wonder whether policy shifts in the second Bush administration will carry over to the Federal Communications Commission.

Michael Powell, named chairman of the FCC by President Bush in 2001, hasn’t weathered quite so stormy a term as his father, Colin, the outgoing secretary of state. But questions about the FCC’s policies on indecency and on media deregulation have been almost continuous sources of anxiety for him.

Whether or not Michael Powell intends to stay in his job in the next administration (he says he does), the complexion of the FCC is certain to change as new commissioners are appointed.

Media congloms are pleased with Powell’s drive to relax ownership regs, but Powell has failed to sell that deregulatory agenda to the public. Some would argue that he didn’t hold sufficient public hearings on the rollback of media ownership rules, and he hasn’t adequately answered charges by consumer groups that greater media concentration is good for the public.

Powell’s record on indecency is more spotty. The FCC has slapped media companies with stiff fines of late — for Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl performance, shock jock Howard Stern’s radio broadcasts and Fox’s reality format “Married in America.” But federal indecency guidelines are now murkier than ever.

Earlier this month, in a letter challenging the fines against CBS affils, Viacom argued that such fines violate the First Amendment and will have a chilling effect on broadcasters. Media critic Jeff Jarvis has shown the FCC’s $1.2 million fine against Fox is based on the complaints of three people, not 159, as the FCC said.

The media’s complex role in the last election season is a useful reminder of the FCC’s powerful influence over matters of national interest. In the next four years, it will have to exercise that power more clearly and consistently.

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