The Torch Is Passed

Martin becomes FCC chairman
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Martin becomes FCC chairman

WASHINGTON

The FCC's lone voting proponent of multicast must-carry took the helm of the commission in March. Kevin Martin, considered by many insiders to be too unpredictable to be a serious contender for the chairmanship, walked away with it when President Bush tapped him for the spot. As a currently sitting commissioner, Martin was not subject to a Senate confirmation.

His appointment comes amid DTV lawmaking that may require him to oversee the end of analog television transmissions. The upside for broadcasters is that Martin was the only member of the commission who did not vote against multicast must-carry when the issue was considered in February.

"It should be kept in mind that this decision will have the most adverse impact on small, independent, religious, family-friendly and minority broadcasters," he said after the vote.

Martin succeeds Michael Powell, who, after more than seven years with the FCC, finally made good on persistent reports that he would step down. Powell toyed with the press about whether or not he would leave until Jan. 21, when his staff was sent into scramble mode after news of his departure appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Eddie Fritts, the outgoing chief of the broadcast lobby, said Martin was the "right person at the right time to lead the FCC. Kevin has a passion for public service and a deep understanding and appreciation for the value of local broadcasting."

TOUGH ON INDECENCY

A native of Waxhaw, N.C., and the fourth of five children, Martin inherits an agency in the height of celebrity. Public response to revised media ownership rules and a pitched debate over indecency catapulted the FCC into the public limelight during 2004.

Martin, whose contemplative demeanor is in contrast to the more freely associating Powell, is expected to be tougher on indecency than his predecessor. He favored fining a Kansas station "per utterance" last December over a show featuring nude Twister and other adult content, and he balked when the FCC first decided against fining NBC for Bono's adjectival F-word at a 2003 awards show. He does, however, support letting affiliates reject network content they find inappropriate for local audiences.

Indecency crusaders were pleased at Martin's ascension.

"Just in the past year, the FCC has deemed topics such as bestiality, masturbation, oral sex, anal sex and pedophilia fit for children to watch on primetime network television," said Parents Television Council President Brent Bozell. "This irresponsibility must stop and with the leadership of Chairman Martin, we are confident it will."

Mindful of recent discourse on regulating cable content, the new chief of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Kyle McSlarrow, issued a carefully measured response to Martin's promotion.

"We look forward to continuing to work closely with Chairman Martin to maintain a deregulatory environment for competitive telecommunications services," he said.

Indecency wasn't high on Martin's radar early in his tenure at the FCC, but ownership was when he said it was "time for the commission to recognize that the nature of broadcasting may no longer be so uniquely situated as to be un-deserving of full First Amendment protections."

Media ownership vexed the former chairman from the start of his tenure, when Fox lawyers convinced the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. to make the FCC prove its rules were valid. The resulting rewrite, issued last summer, caused an uproar on Capitol Hill. Pieces of the rewrite survived, but yet another court ordered the FCC to prove the validity of rest of it.

Instead of initiating another entire rewrite, Martin is expected to deal with ownership rules piece by piece, beginning with lifting the newspaper-broadcast prohibition.

"He has been the champion of the newspaper guys and you could see a targeted effort focused on the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule and the growing number of waivers being sought by Media General, Tribune etc.," said one long-time media executive.

He'll also have two huge mergers on his plate--SBC's purchase of AT&T and Verizon's acquisition of MCI--as well as the shriveling universal service fund and copy protection, a pet issue of the consumer electronics industry. Much to the delight of that industry, Martin generally comes down on the side of new technology. In his own acceptance statement, Martin said he looked forward to continuing Powell's "efforts in bringing the communications industry into the 21st century."

Dave Arland, vice president of government relations at Thomson described Martin as having an "excellent grasp" of new digital and broadband technology.

"He has the intellect and the political acumen to become a truly great chairman," Arland said.

Martin emerged as an independent thinker at the FCC in 2003 when he voted with the Democrats to continue making phone companies lease lines to competitors.

Among those he beat out for the chairmanship include Rebecca Klein, former head of the Texas public utility commission; Michael Gallagher, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and Janice Obuchowski, former head of the NTIA, who were also on the short list for the job.

At press time, Earl Comstock, a former aide to Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and a partner in Washington D.C.-based law firm Sher & Blackwell, was said to have a lock on the spot left vacant by Martin. Another Republican seat that would open with the expected exit of Kathleen Abernathy was expected to go to Klein, if she wanted it.

Before joining the FCC, Martin served as a deputy general counsel for the Bush campaign and an advisor to former FCC commissioner, Harold Furchtgott-Roth. Martin holds a law degree from Harvard, a Masters in public policy from Duke University and a B.A. from the UNC at Chapel Hill, N.C.