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Martin, McSlarrow Introduce Themselves to Cable

The chiefs of the cable lobby and the FCC made their big stage debuts in San Francisco this week. Kyle McSlarrow, the recently anointed president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and Kevin Martin, the new chairman of the FCC, both made their first major public appearances at the Moscone Center in the City by the Bay for the annual NCTA trade show.

Martin's performance consisted of about 10 minutes of banter with Stuart Varney of Fox News, who immediately asked Martin to define indecency. Martin replied that a legal definition of indecency exists, but that he's more concerned about public opinion.

"What's more important is that we're hearing concern from consumers and parents about what is and isn't appropriate to be on television, and all different forms of media. I think that is a serious and significant issue," he said. "When I first arrived at the commission, we received a few hundred complaints... per year from parents and consumers about what was on television and radio; and the next year, we received a few thousand, and the following year, we received over 10,000; and the following year, we received over a million complaints."

Varney then pressed Martin about whether he would extend content regulations to cable and satellite. The new chairman said it was not his purview.

"The Commission is a creature of Congress," he said, "and it's Congress that ends up trying to determine if the rules of decency should be applied to cable."

Last year, however, Martin the commissioner told Congress that applying the rules of decency to cable wasn't a bad idea.

"I am sympathetic to the many people asking why our indecency regulations apply only to broadcast," he said before the House and Senate Commerce committees. "Indeed, today programming that broadcast networks reject because of concerns about content may end up on competing basic cable networks. If cable and satellite operators continue to refuse to offer parents more tools, such as family-friendly programming packages, basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable alternative that also should be considered."

Rather than wait for Congress to crack down, Martin told those gathered at the cable lovefest to clean up their own pen.

"The cable industry has an opportunity here to address this issue... not to speak to me, but to speak to consumers and the parents about some of the concerns we hear about," he said.

Varney asked in what other arena Martin might "take a strong proactive stance on." Martin took exception to the assertion the he was taking a strong proactive stance on indecency, and described himself as more of a market-forces type of guy, which most Republicans claim to be.

"Remember that in each case, the commission is responding to complaints," he said. "Even on indecency, I think it's reactive.

"I think the marketplace is much more important than regulation, as far as driving innovation and providing choices for consumers," he said. "But that doesn't mean the government doesn't have an important role to play. I think it does, in setting the rules of the road to make sure there's fair competition out there."

Martin vaguely described his goal as trying to create a "level playing field" in the media environment so that emerging technologies had a fighting chance of taking hold.

On the issue of broadband, Martin demonstrated the acumen of knowing his audience with the cunning use of an oft-repeated sound bite. He said the nation was "very far along the road" to the president's goal of having universal broadband access by 2007.

"We're very far because of the work of the cable industry here," he said. "The cable industry... since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, invested $95 billion to make their networks capable of delivering broadband service, and as a result of that investment, you now have over 100 million homes--over 90 percent of households--today have access to high-speed Internet access."

Several analysts have pointed out that the $95 billion figure, which the NCTA repeats like a mantra, includes all capital spending. The question is whether or not office chairs and John Rigas's monthly allowance actually contributed to the nation's broadband plant.

Such pesky details didn't come up at the National Show, where McSlarrow delivered his first keynote to the cable constituency.

McSlarrow, a Republican whose background is energy, took the reins of the NCTA in March, around the time Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican whose background is energy, started calling for telecom reform. Barton, chairman of the House Commerce committee, has hinted at regulating cable content.

In his keynote, McSlarrow dutifully invoked the $95 billion mantra, mentioned the industry's 500,000 jobs and took a few measured steps into anti-regulator mode.

"The hard work is in the search for a delicate balance between the realities of the free market and the responsibilities of government," he said. "We believe that balance is best reflected in an approach to regulation that encourages competition and investment, while permitting us to respond quickly and efficiently to consumer needs."