In a private meeting with network affiliates at NAB, sources say, the FCC chairman scolded them for joining networks in challenging indecency fines and tried to enlist their support for cable a la carte.
Is FCC Chairman Kevin Martin trying to recruit broadcasters for his anti-indecency crusade?
It appears so.
During a private get-together with the influential Television Operators Caucus at the NAB convention last week, sources say, Martin scolded the network affiliates who compose the TOC for joining the networks in challenging the FCC’s latest round of indecency fines.
And, the sources say, Martin asked that the broadcasters support his controversial a la carte proposal that would require cable operators to allow subscribers to pick and choose the channels they want and, in that way, avoid those channels they feel were indecent or otherwise unsuitable for viewing in their homes.
Andy Fisher, TOC chairman and head of Cox Television, declined to comment on the meeting, which took place on the first full day of the Las Vegas convention (Monday, April 24) at the Wynn hotel. Martin’s office did not return phone calls or reply to e-mails.
I don’t know if the TOC made any kind of deal, but I’m sure the broadcasters listened intently. There is much they want from the FCC, and Martin will be able accommodate them, once Robert McDowell joins the agency and puts Martin at the head of a three-commissioner Republican majority.
Among other things, the network affiliates would like the FCC to require cable operators to carry their digital multicast signals and ease the ownership rules banning duopolies in small markets and newspaper-broadcast crossownership.
The broadcasters would also probably like action on their long-standing petition affirming the affiliates’ right to preempt network programming.
Martin appeared at the convention the morning after the TOC meeting, and he used the platform to defend his indecency policy. During a Q&A with NAB Joint Board Chairman Bruce Reese, he dismissed the notion that the FCC indecency guidelines are unclear, pointing out George Carlin’s routine that clearly listed what can and cannot be said on TV and radio was broadcast nearly 30 years ago. (In one of communications law’s great ironies, the Supreme Court eventually affirmed Carlin’s list—his seven dirty words are too dirty for broadcast.)
In his state-of-the-industry address the day before the TOC meeting, NAB President David Rehr had complained that broadcasters needed “clearer guidance” from the FCC and Congress and said that “unfortunately the FCC’s recent indecency fines did little to clarify these rules.”
Martin also suggested that the inter-industry campaign to inform parents on how to regulate indecent programs in their own homes was inadequate. Most TV sets are not equipped with the V-chip technology necessary to block programs that parents feel are indecent, he said. Significantly, in light of the TOC meeting, Martin repeated his support for multicast must-carry and said he would move on it if able. “If a majority was willing to relook at that, I think that would be an important opportunity for us to address before 2009,” Martin said.
That was just what broadcasters wanted to hear. Perhaps it was Martin’s way of signaling broadcasters that he was willing to help them, if they would help him. Or maybe—just maybe—it was Martin fulfilling his part of a deal struck a day earlier at the Wynn hotel.
Given the exclusive nature of the TOC—you have to be invited to join—it does a good job of keeping its proceedings from leaking into the press. NAB President David Rehr wasn’t even invited to hear what Martin had to say. He apparently came in after Martin to address the TOC.
The TOC has the ability to make a deal with Martin and make it stick. It currently comprises 11 members: Andy Fisher of Cox; David Barrett of Hearst-Argyle Television; Michael Fiorile of Dispatch; Alan Frank of Post-Newsweek; Roger Ogden of Gannett; Paul Karpowicz of Meredith; Bill Peterson of Scripps; John Reardon,of Tribune; Jack Sander,of Belo; Jim Yager of Barrington; and Jim Zimmerman of Media General.
And these same names pop up frequently on the boards of other trade groups. TOC members currently hold eight of the 23 seats on the NAB TV board, which means it has a loud voice in setting NAB policy.
Readers should not assume that Martin is taking sides with the networks in their periodic bouts with affiliates just because he agreed to a sit down with the TOC. In fact, that same evening, Martin was seen having dinner at the Wynn with Disney President/CEO Robert Iger and other Disney executives, including Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney, ABC Television Group; Preston Padden, the network’s chief Washington representative; and ABC lawyer Susan Fox.
Don’t ask. I don’t know who picked up the tab.