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TV decency proponent to top FCC

Former Bush adviser to head commission

WASHINGTON — Kevin J. Martin, an FCC commissioner since 2001 who has consistently pushed for the agency to be more aggressive on indecency, has been named chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Martin, 38, has strong White House ties, having been deputy general counsel for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and a White House economic adviser prior to his appointment to the commission. His wife, Catherine, is a special assistant to the president on economic policy and previously was an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Martin, who once suggested that broadcasters be fined not per incident but for every “indecent word” uttered, promises to be markedly different from his predecessor on broadcast indecency. Outgoing chairman Michael Powell only reluctantly cracked down on allegedly indecent content. Under Powell, though, the FCC issued $7.7 million in indecency fines in 2004 — up from a mere $48,000 in 2001.

In addition, Martin wants the agency to grant local TV stations the right to reject network shows they consider unsuitable or inappropriate for their audiences.

“It is, sadly, a victory for the forces of so-called decency,” said Center for Digital Democracy exec director Jeff Chester of Martin’s appointment. “Religious and conservative groups campaigned for the elevation of Mr. Martin. They have succeeded in establishing a new litmus test for the FCC chair — someone who will be at the forefront of monitoring programming.”

The Parents Television Council, which has pressed both Congress and the FCC for more action against indecency, hailed the announcement. “The PTC has strongly supported Kevin Martin as chairman of the FCC because he is a stalwart leader on the issue of indecency, and we are confident he will make a superb chairman,” said PTC topper L. Brent Bozell in a statement.

Martin, who does not have to go through confirmation hearings, also must contend with the debacle resulting from the FCC’s attempt to loosen restrictions on the number of outlets a media company can own in one market. In a vote that bitterly divided the commission along party lines, Martin joined Powell and fellow Republican commissioner Kathleen Abernathy in raising that number. After a huge outcry from small media companies and public interest groups, a federal court blocked the newly eased restrictions and ordered the FCC to justify them.

The Justice Dept. later decided not to appeal the court ruling; the agency has not publicly addressed the issue since.

Digital divide

Another unresolved matter is the FCC’s ongoing attempt to establish a firm date for the transition to digital broadcasting. Powell had tried to fix 2009 as the cutoff for analog transmission. But broadcasters have resisted that date, arguing they need more time.

Powell and Martin occasionally clashed over policy, most notably two years ago over phone competition rules. But Martin has consistently supported Powell’s generally deregulatory stance toward the telecommunications industry and will likely continue that approach.

Reactions to Martin’s appointment varied.

Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, welcomed Martin, as did Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), author of recent legislation that dramatically toughens indecency penalties. “Commissioner Martin’s appointment comes at a critical juncture as Congress looks to update the nation’s outdated telecommunications laws,” Upton said in a statement. “I look forward to working with chairman Martin and the president in the months ahead as Congress looks to remove the regulatory barriers that are suffocating the telecom sector.”

Independent streak

Rep. Diane E. Watson (D-Calif.) was less enthusiastic. “To date, commissioner Martin’s record on media policy has not been encouraging,” she said in a statement. “Nevertheless, commissioner Martin has demonstrated his independence in the past by breaking with chairman Powell on crucial telecommunication votes. As the new chairman, we hope Mr. Martin will be more willing to consider diverse points of view on media reform policies.”

“We look forward to continuing to work closely with chairman Martin to maintain a deregulatory environment for competitive telecommunications services,” said Kyle McSlarrow, prexy-CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn.

“Kevin Martin is the right person at the right time to lead the FCC,” said Edward O. Fritts, prexy-CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters. “Kevin has a passion for public service and a deep understanding and appreciation for the value of local broadcasting.”

Robert W. McChesney, founder and president of the media reform group Free Press, said in a statement, “Kevin Martin has not distinguished himself as a defender of the public interest during his tenure at the FCC. Too often, he has done the bidding of industry lobbyists and made decisions behind closed doors without public input.”

Music man

Recording Industry Assn. of America topper Mitch Bainwol told Daily Variety that Martin will “make a very effective chairman. He loves music, and I know he’s concerned about our issues with property rights.”

However, some recording artists have not liked Martin’s stand on indecency. “The fact of life is we’re going to have to address lots of issues related to indecency,” Bainwol added. “But in Kevin we have someone we can talk to, someone who will be available to us.”

Likely candidates to fill Martin’s seat on the commission include others who were considered in the running for the FCC chairmanship. They include Earl Comstock, an aide to Sen. Stevens; Michael Gallagher, a senior Commerce Dept. official; Rebecca Amendariz Klein, former head of the Texas public utilities commission; and Pat Wood, currently at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. All are Republicans; none has yet emerged as a frontrunner.

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