FCC set to roar back to life

The FCC — long dormant without a political majority — is now set to roar back to life this month after the Senate confirmation of a third Republican, Robert M. McDowell.

With its two-two vote deadlock now broken, the five-member agency will begin to tackle a slate of controversial issues and finally test the leadership of Chairman Kevin Martin. The next official FCC meeting is set for June 15.

McDowell, 42, sworn in last Thursday, was formerly a lawyer for Comptel, a trade association that represents telephone and Internet companies that compete against major carriers including AT&T and Verizon Communications. His term runs until June 30, 2009. McDowell fills the seat Kathleen Q. Abernathy, who resigned last year.

High on the list of priorities for the newly reconstituted commission is a review of restrictions on media ownership. A political showdown is expected in this election year. Martin favors lifting the ban barring cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers, and easing limits on how many stations a media giant can own in any one market.

His predecessor, Michael Powell, tried to do the same in 2003. A federal appeals court overturned the ownership rule changes and sent them back to the FCC. Without a political majority, the issue has remained unresolved.

Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who have strongly opposed the Republican-backed revisions, made media ownership a signature issue in the Powell era. It expected they will try again as the battle is renewed.

The McDowell addition has “big media conglomerates looking to get bigger ... popping open the champagne,” reported Forbes.com. The business publication said Martin finally has the authority he needs to push through a relaxation of the rules.

Another hot-button broadcast issue expected to be revisited is digital multichannel must-carry. Martin has promised television stations that he will re-open the contentious issue if the majority of commissioners support it.

Twice in the past, the FCC has voted against requiring multichannel must-carry, a requirement that would force cable operators to carry all of a broadcaster's digital signals. The cable industry has and continues to fiercely oppose such a regulation. Currently, cable operators must-carry only the single, primary signal of a TV station.