Cable Ownership Limits: This Is The Jonathan Adelstein I know

OK, first, as our Great Hero and the real Favorite Son of South Carolina, Stephen Colbert would say: Martin as a true set of huevos grande. On Tuesday, when it looked like he was going down in flames, I opined that Martin wouldn’t risk touching cable again with a ten foot pole and wondered whether he would be relegated to the status of a “lame duck” Chairman. Boy was I wrong. Not only did fight his way back from a total loss to a partial win against the massed might of the cable lobby, but he has emerged determined to go on for another round in bringing cable market power to heel, and this time with no distractions about a la carte.

This time, it’s a vote on the proposed cable ownership limit. Under Martin’s proposal, a cable company may control no more than 30% of the total number of cable, satellite, or other “multichannel video programming distributor” (MVPD) subscribers. As usual, we in the media reform/diversity community have been pushing this for years and, as usual, the cable industry insists it is totally unnecessary, ilegal, fattening, and will mean that the terrorsts win.

So I take a moment to appluad Kevin Martin for his continued courage and willingness to do the right thing on cable, even while making a huge mistake on broadcast ownership. But perhaps more importantly, Jonathan Adelstein has jumped on this puppy and run with it. After the bitter disappointment of this past week’s cable vote, it is a much needed shot in the arm to see Adelstein back in his usual form as a defender of diversity and an opponent of market power. Not to take anything away from Michael Copps, mind, who as usual has a track record of opposing consolidation in cable and has worked with Martin on a host of issues limiting cable market power. I’m just saying that seeing Adelstein act decisively on this one restores my faith that while we may have disagreed on 70/70 (and as usual when these things happen, I’m the one whose right), it was an honest disagreement and not something more nefarious. So while I remain disappointed, I am no longer dismaly disillusioned or dismayed.

More below . . . .

On Wednesday, Martin indicated indicated he would put the 30% cable ownership limit on the agenda for his December 18 meeting. And, perhaps much more importantly, the article reports that Adelstein has already voted in favor of the item! (For those confused by this, the item has been on circulation for more than 6 months. Commissioners may vote an item at any time, request that the Chairman make editorial changes, or may decline to vote. If the Chairman places an item on the meeting agenda, however, the Commissioners must vote on the item. If all five Commissioners vote the item before the meeting, and the item passes, it is adopted “on circulation” and removed from the meeting agenda.)

So Adelstein and Copps have already voted for the item, giving Martin a majority if he decides to keep the item on the agenda until the meeting.

As always, Michael Copps deserves kudos for vigorously opposing media consolidation at every opportunity. But the real good news is Jonathan Adelstein’s immediate vote in favor of the Order. No hesitation, no holding out for consultations with the cable guys. A straightforward case of limiting cable market power and Adelstein did not hesitate to vote it. It helps restore my faith that Adelstein’s decisions on Tuesday had more to do with being pissed off at Martin over Martin’s hardball negotiating tactics (or, as Adelstein preferred to call them, “cooking the books”).

Mind you, I am still terribly disappointed that Adelstein refused to vote that we met the 70/70 threshold. Bluntly, I think we did make the case that threshold was exceeded. And, as we pointed out in our filings, the FCC relied exclusively on Warrens data for the 2002 and 2003 report, noting at the time that it was more reliable than the other reporters for this purpose because it was the only source that provided data on the number of systems with 36 or more activated channels (the relevant systems). In the 2004 report, the FCC did include a “staff analysis” based on sampling the cable price survey Form 325 Adelstein cites, and for reasons I have gone on about at length elsewhere, that survey was a total crock. And however pissed Adelstein and others may be about the broadcast media ownership studies or other places where they feel Martin is playing games, those aren’t really relevant here where, at least from my perspective, the case for penetration was made by us — not just Martin.

But, as I am always careful to point out, there is a huge difference between thinking I’m wrong and the cable guys are right on the merits and being a tool of the cable industry. I think the cable guys are full of it, and I think that some of the things Adelstein said in his concurrence were just plain not true. But I’m hardly a disengaged observer here and, several days later, I can say that a decision to actually get the real numbers (assuming we do, and assuming the FCC is then serious on crunching the numbers and acting on the results) is not proof of being a sell out to the cable industry.

So I am glad to see Adelstein jumping out of the gate to vote the cable ownership. I also hope that civil rights leaders who have been vehemnt in their opposition to broadcast consolidation, like Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, will distinguish their opposition to 70/70 and join Commissioners Copps and Adelstein in working with Chairman Martin to put the lid on cable consolidation.


  1. Just for my edification, why does anything get put on the meeting agenda then? Don’t they generally vote on everything beforehand? Please excuse my ignorance.

    This is the best telecom blog on these here nets.

  2. Given your own blog, mighty flattered.

    As for why things go on the agenda, that is the decision of the chairman. It is one of the chief sources of power for the Chairman, his ability to control the agenda. In Martin’s case, he frequently uses the agenda for open meetings as a means of forcing a vote on issues, rather than putting items on the agenda when he knows he has the votes.

    This style has advantages and disadvantages. It moves the agenda and is part of Martin’s character as a “hard ball” negotiator who frequently uses the agenda to push Commissioners, offer opportunities for “horse trading,” and can always withdraw items if they are voted in advance or if Commissioners wish to defer.

    But it can also generate resentment and ill-will, as seen in last week’s meeting comments. Many of the Commissioners expressed resentment about the short lead time to consider lots of items. Martin, for his part, has observed that he has sometimes had orders on circulation for months without Commissioners taking action, so if he doesn’t put them on the spot by putting it on the agenda, what else can he do?

    It is a very different style from previous Chairs. Only time will tell if it is ultimately a winning strategy or a self-defeating strategy.

  3. makes sense – thanks. hope you’re getting some sleep after the Cable Wars

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