Kevin Martin, the Republican Chairman of the FCC, has been acting very strangely these days.
For example, he is asking for the reinstatement of programming and ascertainment mandates that the FCC dumped a quarter century ago.
What this meant in the old days, broadcasters every three years had to prove they were worthy holders of station licenses. They did this by sending in a post-card saying they were doing a good job.
As further evidence, they were required to send in a few letters from groups who agreed with the broadcasters a good job was being done.
The process was tantamount to a rubber stamp given at license renewal time.
The old mandates also required license holders to do such things as "educational programming." In the old days, they were able to list The Jetsons as fulfilling the educational mandate.
Broadcasters now think these requirements onerous and absolutely insane to bring them back.
The FCC Chairman is also bizarrely asking for rules that ensure broadcasters do a significant amount of local programming. It's called "localism," a doctrine broadcasters compare with other isms, such as socialism and communism. It's something only a few NPR tree hugger-types care about, according to broadcasters.
Martin also has decided to question "product placements," an art form, which Mr. Chairman explained back in September, are a "subtle and sophisticated" means of inserting commercials into the body of their shows. By "subtle and sophisticated" he meant " sleazy." It's not so subtle and sneaky anymore.
I was amazed that anybody at the FCC even noticed. The last thing in the world an FCC commissioner has time to do is actually look at what they are supposed to be by law regulating. They are too busy being wined and dined at industry events and told broadcasting is the bulwark of democracy.
Chairman Martin has also been making bellicose noises about how the cable industry has grown big enough to be regulated. The robber barons are rattling the cages of their constituents in Congress asking for relief from this lunatic.
As if all of this isn't bad enough, Martin is talking about requiring radio stations to explain, among other things, how they go about selecting music they play. Big chains consider this an affront to the basic freedom of having all their stations use the same play list, thus effectively barring alternative music from gaining an audience.
Martin's radical program is an example of the old broadcasting principle of locking the barn door after the horse is stolen. This doesn't prevent the broadcasters going "Neigh, neigh. There's nobody here in the barn but us horse thieves."
In short, what Martin seems to want is the FCC's return to actually regulating broadcasting. That was the mission when The Communications Act of 1934 established the FCC.
But this is absolutely insane. Martin's suggestions fly in the face of its past record of malfeasance, misfeasance and no-feasance.
The basic idea is the Commission was supposed to serve as the public's watch dogs over the public's airwaves and to make sure the lucky license holders serve the public interest. Over the years, the watchdogs have turned into lap dogs who roll over and have their bellies tickled by the industry whenever a growl is heard on K Street.
This man Martin is now completely out of control.
Is he on steroids?
Under Martin, the place has turned into a mad house, the loony bin of government regulatory agencies, who under Bush appreciate that they are supposed to be cheerleaders, not players sticking their noses into the way the free market is operating so well.
You would expect this kind of nonsense from the two Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. They are always whining about how their job was to act in the public interest. These "rabid re-reggers," as industry apologists call the dissenters, are hopeless.
All of this digging up the past from a Republican Chairman is inexplicable. He had been the industry's best friend since his predecessor Michael Powell threw himself from the seat of power in 2004 to play with the toy tanks his father Colin Powell had given him for Christmas.
Of course, none of Martin's noble goals will come to pass, with the possible exception of his contrarian advocacy of cross-ownership (allowing a conglomerate or other entity to own a newspaper and TV station in the same market). He somehow got it into his pointy-head that lack of diversity is good for diversity. As wishy-washy as the way Martin has twisted the rules to favor recipients of this corporate welfare handout so he can open up more cross-ownerships at today's FCC hearings, it's a lot better than being required to sell off either a paper or TV station.
The reason none of the Chairman's other wild and crazy schemes will happen is that the real powers behind the scenes-- the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and Cable Television Advertising Bureau (CAB)---will explain things to Martin in a way that even he can understand.
Some how they will manage to sedate him until he disappears at the end of his term into the communications bar & grill, the place where old FCC commissioners go to examine their options. Previous chairmen have helped turn the FCC into a halfway house, providing shelter and substance to the young and confused soon to be ex-commissioners who eventually will go to work in the information industries they are supposed to be regulating. It's a goode olde tradition dating back to Chairman Newton (Vast Wasteland) Minow who wound up in the wasteland as corporate counsel for CBS.