Temperatures rise at the FCC

In an initial meeting designed to signal that times have changed, the Democrat-controlled Senate Commerce Committee last week went face-to-face with the Republican-controlled FCC.

It was the first time all five FCC commissioners appeared before a major oversight committee in the new Congress. Kevin Martin, the commission's chairman, and the other commissioners faced sharp criticism from some of the committee's senior Democrats on a range of issues.

The Democrats expressed dissatisfaction that the standards of over-the-air broadcasters are declining and that radio and TV station license renewals now get little scrutiny.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) criticized the commission for abandoning "its core responsibility to the public interest" and failing to take steps to reduce sex and violence on television. He also said that the commission has not undertaken a serious review of license renewals by radio and TV stations.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) called on Martin to begin proceedings that would give some teeth to the vaguely worded "public interest" standards that the law requires the agency to apply to broadcast license renewals and mergers.

Dorgan and others were still annoyed by the FCC's recent history with media ownership rules. Martin was asked what the FCC planned to do about the dwindling local news content on the broadcast airwaves.

Martin said he wasn't opposed to considering making rules regarding public interest requirements for broadcasters, but said he was hesitant to pursue rules forcing them "to put on certain kinds of programming."

The commissioners also took heat for their handling of the recent acquisition of BellSouth by AT&T and Internet neutrality issues.

The aggressive questioning by the panel's senior Democrats led by chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI), however, clearly signaled that the Democrat Congress would be exerting significant new pressure on the commission's policymaking apparatus.

Martin avoided any of the more controversial issues in his opening statement. He made no mention of net neutrality, indecency rules or media ownership. Instead, he focused on the growth of the industries he regulates.

The FCC members are scheduled to face members of the House of Representatives in a few weeks. The Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a hearing of its own for Feb. 15 and asked all five commissioners to appear.