Powell to leave key FCC post

Published: Saturday, January 22, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 21, 2005 at 11:39 p.m.
LOS ANGELES - Michael K. Powell has resigned as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission after a four-year stretch that left him praised by media-owners and damned by show-makers.
He plans to leave in March, according to a statement on the commission's Web site.
''Having completed a bold and aggressive agenda, it is time for me to pursue other opportunities and let someone else take the reins of the agency,'' the statement reads.
''My only significant regret is that I will no longer have the pleasure and privilege of working shoulder to shoulder with the most talented and dedicated staff and colleagues that I have known. I look forward to spending some time off with my wife and two boys, before taking up my next challenge.''
Powell, son of departing Secretary of State Colin Powell, was appointed by President Clinton to a Republican spot on the commission in 1997. President Bush elevated him to chairman Jan. 22, 2001.
The four years Powell spent as chair coincided with two major changes: With increasing media choices - including new networks, cable and satellite TV-some people argued that there was no reason for the old, monopoly regulations. The FCC loosened its rules; it allowed owners to have more stations and, in many cases, to have two stations in the same city. It also removed restrictions on networks producing their own shows.
After Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during CBS' Super Bowl halftime show a year ago, the FCC began a major crackdown on nudity and language. That included fining the CBS-owned stations that carried the incident.
''Obviously, we're still very upset about the FCC's treatment of us on Janet Jackson,'' Leslie Moonves, the CBS chairman, said Tuesday, before reports arrived of Powell's resignation. ''We're refusing to pay that fine and we're going much further with (fighting) it.''
Moonves insisted that the crackdown hasn't affected what is on the air. Others argue that the FCC has had a sharp effect in recent years.
''It is not having a chilling affect on our shows,'' he said Tuesday. ''Watch 'CSI.' Watch (ABC's) 'Desperate Housewives.' It's not having us pull back.''
Still, he granted that the past year has brought a new era. ''What we're saying to our producers is, 'Guys, let's not be stupid about this.' Clearly, there's a change in how the FCC is looking at us.''
Others argue that the FCC - which regulates broadcast, but not cable - has had a sharp affect in recent years.
On radio, Tom Griswold and Bob Kevoian of the national ''Bob and Tom Show'' have complained frequently that their lawyers have told them to stop using the racy comedy material they'd been playing for years.
And on TV, many producers say, prior to word of the resignation, that the FCC has been tightening sharply.
''It was before Nipplegate,'' Gary Scott Thompson, producer of NBC's ''Las Vegas,'' said Thursday.
Steven Bochco, the ''NYPD Blue'' producer, had similar comments Thursday. ''Janet Jackson was certainly a turning point for what we were used to doing and what we couldn't do,'' he said.
When ''NYPD Blue'' premiered in 1993, it included full, back-view nudity during love scenes. Bochco then called it ''R-rated television''; many stations refused to air it. ''ABC was so anxious ... it was a storm,'' he recalled.
The show became a quick hit and stations added it. Still, Bochco said, any changes were temporary. ''Everyone thought 'NYPD Blue' would lead to a more open era in television. (But) during the past five years, the medium has become more conservative again.''
After the post-Jackson crackdown, the semi-nudity ended. ''You stop doing them at some point,'' Bochco said.
Others have noted similar results. Many ABC stations didn't carry a Veteran's Day airing of ''Saving Private Ryan,'' when director Steven Spielberg refused to allow language cuts; PBS has made small changes in many projects.
''The chilling effect that we're all worried about is exactly that,'' Pat Mitchell, the PBS president, said recently. ''When (rules are) not hard and fast and totally clear-cut, you do find yourself making decisions, second-guessing. That's why you ended up with that 'Saving Private Ryan' situation. We do worry about that, along with our producers.''
''The key thing we're looking for is uniformity ... if everyone understands the rules, it might be better,'' Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, said Friday shortly after learning the news.
While filmmakers complain, however, others have seen Powell's era as a plus. There are few limits to mergers and expansions; networks are free to produce many of their own shows. Television has been in a big and booming era.
Still others have also been wary. When NBC's Jay Leno had one of his rare live shows on New Year's Eve, a rock group said the banned ''F-word.'' Zucker said Friday that Leno's show will now have a five-second delay for its live broadcasts and ''Motley Crue will not be back on NBC.''
-- Mike Hughes, who covers television for Gannett News Service, is reporting from the semiannual Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles.

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