When lexicographers write dictionaries in the future, the definition for deregulation might be an unusual reference: See Mark S. Fowler.
Fowler, 45, who was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for nearly six years, cleaned out his office April 17, but his controversial legacy of changes will continue to be felt throughout the rapidly changing telecommunications industry--from television to telephones.
As National Cable Television Assn. President James P. Mooney put it: "Mark Fowler leaves very deep footprints."
Fowler's vision--one which he believes he has successfully advanced--is of an unregulated, competitive marketplace constrained only by imagination and capital.
As the man who once equated television to "a toaster with pictures" now heads for a still-unannounced job outside government, the debate over key Fowler Commission actions continues.
Today the key question being asked about Fowler's legacy is whether it will stand the test of time--and of efforts by some members of Congress to reverse it.
"Who knows what will happen two years from now?" Fowler says. "I think there may be some efforts to reverse the pendulum, but I don't think it will change very much. Competition and technological forces clearly will not permit us to go backward, nor should they."
Ironically, one of Fowler's last votes seemed at odds with his stance as a champion of giving broadcasters First Amendment rights equal to those of the print media. He joined his four commission colleagues in a unanimous vote to broaden the definition of what comprises indecent broadcast programming, going beyond the narrower "seven dirty words" upheld by the Supreme Court in 1978. (See related stories on Page 1.)
Fowler insists there was no conflict with his beliefs because obscene speech is not protected by the First Amendment for the print media, either. "I think we have acted carefully in this area," Fowler said after the vote.
In a wide-ranging interview, a relaxed Fowler talked about his accomplishments and a few regrets, expressed his thoughts on the state of the television networks and the Hollywood production industry, and voiced concerns about congressional intrusion into the business of an independent regulatory agency.
At the top of Fowler's list of accomplishments were actions that led to a 30% reduction in long-distance telephone rates in recent years, and steps toward the complete deregulation of the broadcast industry.
A former radio broadcaster, Fowler vigorously pursued efforts to free broadcasters from rules and regulations "that never made any sense" and others "which time has made senseless."
Fowler also credited the commission with "eliminating the atmosphere of fear that pervaded the industry."
"When I was a disc jockey and the feds showed up with their blue badges at the station, we would call all of our competitiors and say, 'They're here,' " he recalled. "That doesn't happen very much (now) because we have eliminated many of the rules that tripped people up. There has been a change of emphasis. We are less likely to want to take licenses away."
While broadcasters applauded Fowler, he was not without his share of critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere--including consumer goups, advocates of improved children's television and minorities, all of whom maintained that, under Fowler, the commission was far less responsive to them.
Some of the commission's more dramatic rulings came in the broadcast area. The commission relaxed an old rule that had limited a single company from owning more than seven AM radio stations, seven FM stations and seven television stations. Now companies can own 12 stations in each category.
The FCC also eliminated another rule that had required that a station be owned for three years before it could be sold.
Deregulatory actions such as those helped set the stage for a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the television industry, with record price tags for some stations.
Even with the economic cutbacks that have followed in the wake of the flurry of ownership changes, especially at ABC, CBS and NBC, Fowler predicted that "television, network television in particular, will get better, because they still have the economics to be a more efficient distributor of programming than any other means available."
"They don't have any choice," he said of the networks. "They either have to get better or they will have dramatic declines."
He said they must "preach more creativity, practice it, and have an outreach program to identify new talent outside of Hollywood."
Fowler at times had acrimonious relations with the Los Angeles-based TV-production industry, but he said he harbors "no animosity toward the Hollywood people. There are leaders out there who are rethinking the world."
One highly publicized battle that Fowler will long remember was the FCC's effort to ease the controversial financial interest and syndication rules governing the ownership of TV programs. The networks wanted them relaxed, to give them a share of rerun revenues, while the studios and independent producers solidly and successfully fought the proposed changes.
"Hollywood did a full-court press with exceeding skill, competence, money and even movie stars," Fowler said.
Among Fowler's regrets is an unsuccessful effort to win repeal of the Fairness Doctrine--a long-standing commission policy that requires broadcasters to include all sides in their coverage of a controversial issue. Fowler insists that this "misguided government policy" violates broadcasters' First Amendment rights and forces them to shy away from covering such controversial matters.
This week, the Senate took the matter into its own hands and voted to write the Fairness Doctrine into law. Fowler remains convinced that the issue will ultimately be decided by the courts.
The Senate's action was only the latest in a succession of confrontations between Fowler and Congress over issues that were before the commission.
"It is questionable whether the commission still is an independent regulatory agency," he said.
"We have a generation of businessmen--particularly big business--that runs to Capitol Hill every time they think that a competitor is entering the market or that there is a new technology that could hurt them competitively.
"That means that the decisions that should be made in the marketplace are oftentimes being made by the members of Congress and their staffs. Over and over again, I've seen the Congress want to intervene when there has been no compelling reason to do so."
Fowler predicted that, sooner or later, there will be a court case brought against the FCC alleging that "the record in the proceeding is so tainted with extra pressure and coercion of the agency that the decision was not made on the record."
Next week, a House telecommunications subcommittee will begin hearings on mergers and other changes at the television networks, and in May a Senate panel will examine the colorization of films.
"It's very scary," Fowler said. "It's troubling enough that they (congressmen) intrude into the newsrooms and the program director's office. Now they are apparently going to intrude into the management decisions. The connection to any public interest in these hearings is very tenuous."
As he left office, Fowler expressed little worry that his successor, Dennis Patrick, will continue to press for deregulation, explaining that they agree on "the broad philosphical issues."
In any case, Fowler felt the time had come to move on.
He plans to wait for Albert Halprin, chief of the commission's common carrier bureau, which handled telephone issues, to leave his job in the next few weeks. The two friends, who have spent many lunch hours in Fowler's office playing chess, will enter business together.
"We don't have any ideas of where we will ultimately wind up but we have a number of options," Fowler said.