Very few people have anything nice to say about the FCC's Kevin Martin. The WSJ's Amy Schatz has a rollicking overview of all the different constituencies he's managed to piss off since taking over in 2005 – the latest are the anti-media-consolidation crowd, who are most upset at yesterday's decision to relax cross-ownership rules. But even the people who benefit from the latest ruling are hardly fans: Martin has gone against them in the past, especially on the indecency front, and in any case they want much more than what they're getting:
If Mr. Martin expected business to show him a little love over his push to allow more media concentration, he has been disappointed. Big media companies think the proposal doesn't go far enough. [News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS), owner of The Wall Street Journal, has lobbied the FCC to further relax cross-ownership rules.] The companies want unlimited rights to own newspapers and TV stations in the same market, saying the Internet has made the old rules obsolete.
I'm no fan of censorship, especially not when it comes to necessarily subjective grounds such as indecency. But I have to say I think Martin is doing a pretty good job of pushing smart reforms, like a la carte cable pricing, in the face of united opposition from Big Media. As overarching regulatory philosophies go, this is a good one:
"I genuinely believe that we need to be removing legacy regulations," Mr. Martin says. "But if you believe that, you also have to recognize where the government needs to have rules in place to facilitate that competition."
Industries generally evolve much more quickly than their regulators. In the communications industry, that means that cable operators – who historically were small enough not to require much in the way of regulation – have managed to get away with the kind of behavior which would be unthinkable were they to own TV stations. Martin's now focusing his regulatory attention on them, and, predictably, they and their lobbyists are squealing. Good for him.
As for cross-ownership, it's a non-issue which unfortunately plays extremely well on the political stage. No one can deny that the sheer variety of voices and viewpoints available to the public is wider now than it ever has been in the past, and there really is nothing to worry about when it comes to newspaper owners owning TV stations or the other way around. It's the flip-side of regulating the cable companies: the owners of newspapers and TV stations now have much less power than they used to, so they should be deregulated somewhat. It's a sign of intelligence and flexibility on the part of the regulator, two things which are generally pretty rare in Washington DC.