In a stark example of behind-the-scenes politicking, the FCC’s widely anticipated Tuesday meeting on cable regulatory issues — originally skedded for 9:30 a.m. ET — finally got under way close to 9:30 p.m., and the nearly 12-hour delay did not bode well for Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin and his plans to rewire some of the FCC’s rules governing major cable operators.
An agenda prepared with a heavy regulatory hand ended up significantly lightened, putting Martin clearly on the defensive amid charges of “suppressed” data and a “disturbing” determination to arrive at a desired conclusion.
The meeting that almost never was came as an enormous embarrassment for Martin, who earlier this month very publicly and confidently announced a finding that could lead to new regs over cablers and skedded a vote on it for Tuesday’s monthly commission meeting. Per procedure, the FCC chairman decides the items on the monthly meeting’s agenda and usually includes only items for which he knows he has enough supporting votes.
The finding involves a provision in the 1984 Cable Act, which states that when cable TV reaches a certain degree of market penetration, the FCC can act to ensure program diversity. Martin said that recent data from Warren Communications show that cable has passed that point. But the industry has strongly disputed the data, and GOP commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell refused to do anything until they get what they feel is more reliable data.
Democratic commissioner Michael Copps was said to be supportive of Martin, mainly because the finding dovetails with his crusade against big media getting bigger. Jonathan Adelstein, the other Dem commissioner, at first seemed ready to support for similar reasons, but then worried that Martin was trying to rush a vote prematurely.
Serious trouble erupted on Monday evening, when, according to Adelstein and McDowell, FCC data contradicting the Warren data was “mysteriously” made available.
Adelstein and McDowell strongly suggested the contradicting data had been “suppressed” and raised pointed questions about why every previous annual finding the FCC has made on cable penetration relied on more than one source of data. The original draft of the current finding relies only on the Warren data. McDowell called this “disturbing.”
Copps, too, expressed a desire for more data to determine whether the cable industry had reached or passed the level of market penetration that would trigger FCC action.
Throughout the afternoon, a compromise was hammered out: The FCC would seek more data, specifically from the cable industry, about market penetration and would require cablers to deliver the figures within 60 days.
Martin said the data were not suppressed. “They weren’t even asked for before yesterday,” he said. He also said that he included only the Warren data because the commission has acknowledged it to be more precise than other sources. He said he omitted other sources that would have shown an even higher market penetration by cable.
“But in the end, what I think is important, despite all the fighting … is that we’re going to move forward and get more data,” Martin said.