Former FCC Chief Michael Powell to Head Cable Lobby
WASHINGTON: Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell
is taking over the helm at the cable lobby. The National Cable & Telecommunications
Association today announced that Powell has been appointed president and CEO. Powell,
who served as chairman of the commission from 2001 through 2005, will take over
for outgoing president and CEO, Kyle McSlarrow on April 25. McSlarrow is leaving
the cable lobby to become president of Comcast/NBC Universal operations in Washington.
Powell was nominated as a member of the FCC by President Bill Clinton and sworn
in on Nov. 3, 1997. He was designated chairman by President George W. Bush in January
2001, serving in that role until April 2005.
The TV issues most prevalent during Powell’s tenure as chairman included media ownership,
indecency, and the DTV transition. When he was elevated from commissioner to chairman
in 2001, D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Harry T. Edwards, for whom
Powell had clerked, ordered the FCC to rewrite its media ownership rules. Powell’s
FCC subsequently relaxed them, allowing one company to own three TV stations, eight
radio stations, a cable system and the dominant daily newspaper in the country’s
largest markets. Media watchdogs were incensed. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals
in Philadelphia stayed a large portion of Powell’s rewrite in 2004, and he left
before it was finally lifted a year ago.
Powell was at first neutral on indecency, giving NBC a pass in 2003 when U2’s Bono
let fly the F-word on prime-time TV. Powell initially noted the word was used exclamatorily
rather than sexually--the recipe for indecency under FCC rules. He later reversed
himself in the wake of a backlash, generated mostly by the Parents Television Council.
Other notable initiatives during the Powell Commission include the first inquiry
to authorize the use of unlicensed devices in TV spectrum, the approval of the Comcast
and AT&T merger---resulting in the largest cable operation in the United States--and
the phase-in of digital tuners in TV sets. The broadcast flag was adopted under
Powell, as were rules for CableCards, intended to free cable TV subscribers from
proprietary set-top boxes. They fizzled. So did broadband-over-powerlines, which
was also launched during Powell’s chairmanship.
Like all FCC chairman he dealt with spectrum issues, including a repo situation
in which the commission went after NextWave Telecom for defaulting on its bid following
bankruptcy. The FCC tried to reaction NextWave’s licenses, but the courts determined
they were under bankruptcy protection. Under Powell, a deal was brokered by which
the FCC was able to recover at least some of the licenses and NextWave was allowed
to sell the rest.
He advocated for spectrum reform.
“Our nation’s approach to spectrum allocation is seriously fractured,” he said in
2001. “There have been dramatic changes in spectrum requirements and technology
and services that use spectrum since 1934. Yet, while we have made some major strides
in how we assign spectrum--principally through auctions--allocation policy is not
keeping pace with the relentless spectrum demands. The spectrum allocation system
is not effectively moving spectrum to its highest and best use in a timely manner.”
He argued for “market-oriented” allocation allowing for multiple uses, and for what
was essentially an updated spectrum inventory. More recently, Powell said the country
was “over-invested, spectrum-wise, in broadcasting.”
Multicast must-carry reached fever pitch under Powell. Broadcasters were agitating
for compulsory carriage of multicast feeds, but Powell resisted. The commission
voted it down 4-1 before he left, to the gratitude of the cable industry, which
he will now represent.
“Cable is a dynamic and highly innovative industry, providing cutting edge services
and content that Americans love,” Powell said in a statement announcing his appointment.
“The broadband platform the industry has deployed is a critical part of the infrastructure
needed to realize our national ambition to be a great nation in the Information
Age. I am excited to help lead companies committed not only to their businesses,
but to improving U.S. competitiveness and supporting invaluable programs in important
areas such as education.”
Powell currently is a senior advisor with Providence Equity Partners and honorary
co-Chair of Broadband for America.
Patrick J. Esser, chair of the NCTA board of directors and president of Cox Communications
offered the following: “Michael Powell is one of the most well respected and influential
visionaries in all of telecommunications, and we’re so proud to have him join the
Gordon Smith, head of the National Association of Broadcasters, offered this: “I
got to know Michael well during my tenure on the Senate Commerce Committee, and
always found him to be thoughtful, engaging and a tremendous public servant. Though
NAB and NCTA do not always agree on every issue, we look forward to working with
Michael in the months ahead on public policy issues where we might find mutual agreement.”
Matt Polka is head of the American Cable Association, which represent primarily
smaller cable operations. He had this to say: “Everyone in the independent cable
community wishes Michael the very best in his new position, and we look forward
to working with him on the issues that are important to both large and small cable
And from Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of consumer lobby Public Knowledge:
“We look forward to working with him on a number of issues of vital importance to
U.S. consumers, including broadband deployment and retransmission consent. We sincerely
hope he will help the association realize the transition to a broadband economy
will take many forms, as consumers wish to exercise choices of online services and
Prior to the FCC, Powell served as the chief of staff of the Antitrust Division
in the Department of Justice where he advised the Assistant Attorney General on
substantive antitrust matters, including policy development, criminal and civil
investigations, and mergers. He also served as an associate in the Washington, D.C.,
office of the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP. Before his legal career, Powell
was a policy advisor to the Secretary of Defense and served as an armored cavalry
officer in the U.S. Army.
Powell serves on a number of non-profit boards, including the Mayo Clinic, the Aspen
Institute and Americas Promise, where he co-chairs Grad Nation, an effort to end
the high school dropout crisis. He also served as the Rector of the Board of Visitors
of the College of William and Mary.
Powell graduated in 1985 from the College of William and Mary with a degree in Government.
He earned his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.
--Deborah D. McAdams