Chairman to leave org after Obama takes office

He’s been a thorn in the side of broadcasters and cable operators alike for the past four years, but now he’s outta there.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin confirmed Thursday that he will ankle the commission as of Tuesday, when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in.

It was a given that Martin, a Republican, would be replaced as chairman of the five-member commission after Obama took office, but he could have opted to serve out the remaining two years on his term as an FCC commissioner. Obama has nommed Julius Genachowski, a former top FCC aide during the Clinton administration and a Harvard Law School pal of the prez-to-be, to succeed Martin (Daily Variety, Jan. 14).

Martin, who joined the FCC as a commissioner in 2001 and was named chairman by President Bush in 2005, said he would segue to a post as a senior fellow at the D.C.-based Aspen Institute think tank. There’s been speculation that Martin is interested in running for Congress from his home state of North Carolina.

Martin’s tenure as FCC chief was marked by battles with cable operators over his championing of efforts to force cable ops to offer “a la carte” pricing of channel packages and his push to expand and enforce FCC’s broadcast indecency rules, both strongly opposed by the biz.

In a sign of how little love was lost between Martin and broadcasters, National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy David Rehr offered a tepid reaction to Martin’s resignation announcement, saying the trade org “respects Kevin Martin’s intellect and his belief in the lifeline role played by local broadcasters.”

The National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. had no comment on Martin’s departure.

Martin has also presided over the FCC’s preparations for the Feb. 17 transition to digital broadcasting. The overall federal effort to ready the country for the transition has been strongly criticized by the incoming Obama administration as woefully insufficient to address the potential problems for homes that still receive only broadcast TV through old-fashioned antennas and rabbit ears.

Obama officials have urged Congress to delay the long-planned switch, and D.C. insiders say key Democratic House and Senate reps are drafting legislation that would include a delay, though some Republican lawmakers have come out against such a delay (Daily Variety, Jan. 9).

Martin’s campaign to push cablers to allow consumers to buy only the cable channels they want was mostly an annoyance for cablers and never gained much traction as a policy initiative. But the vigorous enforcement of indecency policy over the past few years has spurred a steady stream of legal challenges by TV station owners and the Big Four networks.

Martin’s hand on indecency was strengthened by Congress, which in 2006 significantly raised the fines that the FCC could dole out to broadcasters for such violations (hiking the penalty per infraction from a maximum of $32,500 to $325,000) in the wake of the uproar over Janet Jackson’s breast-baring incident at the 2004 Super Bowl.

The flurry of litigation in the federal courts led the Supreme Court to take its first broadcast indecency case in 30 years, since it issued its landmark ruling involving George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine in 1978. The high court heard oral arguments in November in the case revolving around the use of so-called fleeting expletives carried in live telecasts; the court is expected to issue its decision in the next month or so.

Specifically, the case revolves around Bono’s use of “fucking” on the 2003 Golden Globe Awards telecast on NBC and similar four-letter bombs dropped by Cher and Nicole Richie at separate Billboard Music Awards telecasts on Fox in 2002 and 2003.

Although those cases predate Martin’s tenure as chairman, the legal battling over the FCC’s decision to enforce fines for those incidents has occurred on his watch. The Supreme Court case turns on the question of whether the FCC gave broadcasters proper notification that it was toughening its policy against fleeting expletives. Broadcasters have argued that in the past, the FCC shied away from issuing fines for the impromptu use of salty language on live broadcasts, and that Martin’s FCC never gave them or the courts a legal rationale for why the commission would change course.

Also under Martin, the FCC has sparred with CBS in interminable appeals of the $550,000 fine issued over the Jackson incident. Last summer, a federal appeals court sided with CBS and voided the fine. The FCC appealed that decision to the Supreme Court in November, and there is speculation that the high court may opt to hear the Jackson appeal and combine that case with its decision on fleeting expletives.

In his exit statement, Martin made no mention of the indecency battles but cited the spread of broadband services as a highlight of his time in office.

“As a result of the market-oriented and consumer-focused policies we have pursued, the American people are now reaping the rewards of convergence and the broadband revolution, including new and more innovative technologies and services at ever-declining prices,” Martin said.

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