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FCC Official in Media Hot Seat

Profile: W. Kenneth Ferree, who will play key role in shaping Internet and TV, built his career on nonconformity.

July 22, 2002|EDMUND SANDERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man who is helping to shape the future of television rarely watches it.

His decisions on high-speed Internet access will affect millions, but he'd rather play classical piano than surf the Web and he has never downloaded a tune.

He's a top media industry watchdog but by no means a news junkie, only scanning Washington newspapers and skipping CNN most days.

Despite such seeming contradictions, W. Kenneth Ferree--chief of the Federal Communications Commission's media bureau--could have more to say about how Americans are entertained and informed in the coming years than just about any other government official aside from his boss, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell.

As head of the media bureau, Ferree's responsibilities include overseeing the roll-out across the U.S. of high-speed Internet service and digital television, the reshaping of media-ownership rules that could spur more mergers among cable, broadcast and newspaper companies, and the approval or rejection of giant media deals, such as the proposed mergers between Comcast Corp. and AT&T Broadband and between EchoStar Communications Corp. and Hughes Electronics Corp., which owns DirecTV.

"He's like the fifth FCC commissioner," quipped one industry official. Ferree, 41, dismisses such characterizations. "I'm just a worker bee," he insisted.

But Powell confirmed that Ferree--whom he met while they were both students at Georgetown University law school in the early 1990s--has become a powerful voice at the agency. "He's going to have a huge stamp on some things that are on the way," the chairman said.

By next year Powell has promised to release a sweeping review of decades-old media rules, ranging from national limits on TV and cable ownership to rules that prevent a company from owning newspaper and broadcast TV outlets in the same city. (Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, is pushing to eliminate those rules.)

Ferree declined to comment on issues pending before the commission. But his past comments and writings indicate he shares Powell's faith in free markets, deregulation and competition.

He favors a hands-off approach to the Internet and is no fan of cable-rate regulation. Before taking his post, Ferree suggested that the FCC should eventually abandon oversight of cable, as satellite TV and other alternative technologies provide greater competition. Such views probably will weigh heavily on his decision--expected later this year--on a rule prohibiting a cable company from reaching more than 30% of the national pay-TV audience. A federal appeals court has thrown out that cap.

Another key issue for the FCC is whether media consolidation reduces the diversity of programming on TV, but Ferree--who recently started forcing himself to watch more TV--said he has been astounded by the amount and variety of programming.

"I never paid attention to cable until I got this job," he said. "There's more good stuff out there than I thought there was. What I remember of TV is 'Three's Company' and 'Hogan's Heroes.' "

Forecasting what Ferree will decide, however, is risky. He has built a career on nonconformity and unpredictability.

A former football lineman at Dartmouth College who never made academics a top priority, he surprised himself by acing law school and graduating near the top of his class.

He married an undercover police officer and is eager to be seen as a tough enforcer, but Ferree once rushed to help the American Civil Liberties Union free a Virginia motorist arrested for interfering with a roadside sobriety checkpoint.

He's a hulking, 6-foot-6 figure who hunts, shoots, flies airplanes and rides a motorcycle to work every day, but he also dabbles in poetry (he sometimes writes his e-mails in verse) and has been known to sneak off during lunch to visit his kids.

"He's a little Baby Huey sometimes," Powell said in an interview. "Ken definitely has these eccentricities, which I think he enjoys very much."

Apparently, Powell enjoys them too. When the son of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was named FCC chairman in early 2001, Ferree was his first major appointment.

At the time, Ferree was a relatively unknown telecommunications attorney, representing cable and satellite interests at a boutique Washington law firm. But Ferree has quickly won over many in the industry with his no-nonsense style and charisma.

"He tells you what he's actually thinking," said Walt Disney Co. lobbyist Preston Padden. "He's not in anybody's pocket."

Ferree's law school ties with Powell have provided him with an extra aura of power.

"When you are interacting with Ken, you know he has the support of the chairman," said Robert Sachs, head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. "If Ken were to make a contrary recommendation, it would be a high hurdle to overcome."

At the stuffy government agency, Ferree has made a splash. He favors wearing loud Jerry Garcia and Mickey Mouse ties, a habit he picked up while working as a salesman and looking for ways to distinguish himself.

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