Power shifts in Washington

The old saying is that only two things are for certain, “death and taxes.” To this, should be added “change.” The latter is probably truer than the former. This is particularly applicable to the political environment in Washington, D.C.

The recent political balance in Washington was so precarious that the change of one Senator's political allegiances has caused a complete shift in the way business will be conducted and what can be expected out of the nation's capitol. Chairmanships of virtually all senatorial committees have changed hands to what is now the majority party in that house of Congress.

Of particular interest to broadcasters is the shift in chairmanship in the Commerce Committee from Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC). With this change, we can expect a significant change in many areas, including but not limited to TV ownership caps, newspaper-broadcast cross ownership, deregulation of nearly all parts of the communications industry, TV violence issues and the transition to digital television.

One of the major reasons Fox CBS and NBC left the National Association of Broadcasters' fold was over NAB's stand on ownership caps. There was a ray of hope for the cap to rise under the old guard, but it is unlikely under the current leadership. Cross ownership had a chance, but is nearly a dead issue now. Telco's expansion into broadband service might have gotten off the ground, but is also nearly a dead issue. As for the transition to digital, the old guard would have held broadcasters to a tight transition schedule, but that may well be eased under the new leadership, with sources saying that this might include a push for more HDTV content as one approach to acting more in the public interest. With a 60 percent change in the top echelon at the FCC, it should prove to be an interesting ride.

Not only is there a whole new twist in Congress, but we've also got a whole new team leading us down the communications regulatory path at the FCC. This spring saw three new faces: Kathleen Abernathy, a Republican, was vice president for public policy at communications service provider BroadBand Office Communications; Michael Copps, a Democrat, was an aide to Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-MN (not to be confused with Senator Fritz Hollings [D-SC]), the new Senate Commerce Committee boss; and Kevin Martin, a Republican, was recently a deputy general counsel for George W. Bush's presidential campaign and a former FCC aide. All are attorneys.

Chairman Michael Powell had his term with the Commission renewed. Commissioner Tristani's (a Democrat) term should last another year. The FCC is directed by five Commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for five-year terms, except when filling an unexpired term. The President designates one of the Commissioners to serve as Chairperson. Only three Commissioners may be members of the same political party. None of them can have a financial interest in any Commission-related business.

The FCC officials recently asked for public input on reorganizing the agency. The project is being led by Mary Beth Richards, an FCC Special Counsel who plans to unveil a reform plan later this year. It is expected that the FCC's industry-specific bureaus, such as Mass Media, Wireless and Common Carrier, will be realigned along functional duties such as licensing, enforcement and consumer affairs. No specific due date for comments was posted, but FCC officials say they will be collected soon.

Send questions and comments to:larry_bloomfield@intertec.com