Powell takes over

Powell will have the opportunity to significantly reshape the FCC and related telecommunications policy.

The transition to digital, from a governmental prospective, is now in the hands of the newly appointed Chairman of the FCC, Michael K. Powell. Powell is setting out to distance himself from the ways of his Clinton administration predecessors by voicing skepticism about a bevy of regulations affecting broadcasters and other services. At his first news conference he left no question that he places greater faith in the marketplace to correct possible problems and emphasized a sharply reduced role for the FCC.

Heading up a Commission that has two vacancies out of five and a third likely, Powell will have the opportunity to significantly reshape the FCC and related telecommunications policy. In contrast with Powell's two immediate predecessors, he has somewhat cordial relations with House and Senate leaders. According to The New York Times, some House and Senate leaders have taken credit for promoting his career and for his latest appointment, at age 37, with some indicating a willingness to defer to Powell's deregulatory approach.

The hot issue of the 35 percent cap on penetration of U.S. households by a single broadcast interest was raised when Powell said, “I am quite skeptical that anyone has any demonstrable case that such caps actually inure to the benefit of consumers in the form of greater and more diverse product. That's almost a romantic notion at times and an emotional one, and I think an important one, but that is more difficult to demonstrate objectively than to believe subjectively. As an institution of government, we have to be able to justify on more than just a sentiment the continuation of a regulatory intervention, and that's the way I feel about that cap.”

Taking up two other controversial issues, program content and cable rates, Powell said that the FCC basically had no official role to play in controlling violence or other content, or in seeking legislation that would require the broadcasters to provide free air time for political candidates. “I think there is a lot of garbage on television,” he said. “There are a lot of things children should not watch. But I don't believe that government should be your nanny.” Adding to this, he said he did not regard cable rates going up by more than 30 percent as a sign of failure of the cable deregulation of the last few years.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Washington over the next few months as the vacancies on the Commission are filled. There is no question on either side of the political arena that things will be different.