Communications investors will have their ears to the ground this week. The fast-changing telecom, cable and media businesses will be on display at a Bank of America conference in New York. Execs from Cingular, Sprint ( S) and Time Warner ( TWX), among others, will be on hand Wednesday and Thursday at Manhattan's Palace Hotel. Consolidation and technology will surely be on the agenda. But the headliner may well be Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, who will make a keynote address Wednesday afternoon. With execs everywhere in medialand complaining their hands are tied by red tape, Wall Street is eager to hear Martin out. Martin has already made a name for himself by backing parents concerned about decency standards. In November, Martin said he favored so-called a la carte pricing of cable programming, arguing that letting consumers choose channels could be cost effective and would support family programming. Some cable operators and large programmers opposed the move, arguing that costs would soar. With cable operators like Comcast ( CMCSA) and Cablevision ( CVC) feeling the pinch of competition from triple threat-minded telcos AT&T ( T) and Verizon ( VZ), the prospect of a smaller cable bill didn't make investors happy. But if Martin didn't go out of his way to make friends with the cable industry, he has demonstrated impressive political skills. Several cable and satellite operators quickly resolved to form family-friendly programming tiers to cut the FCC off at the pass. Listeners at the conference may hope to learn if companies like EchoStar ( DISH) and DirecTV ( DTV) have gone far enough. Sources close to the commissioner say he believes in free-market forces and will likely always opt for market-driven solutions rather than harsh government regulation. That brings up two other long-standing FCC issues in the broadcasting domain. TV station and newspaper owners, long frustrated by cross-ownership restrictions, will be looking for some clarity from Martin on his intentions where deregulation is concerned.
Gabelli & Co.'s Chris Marangi observes there's an expectation that once the five-member FCC is rounded out by a third Republican, Martin may tackle newspaper-TV cross-ownership restrictions. With the exception of companies that had properties that were grandfathered in -- such as Belo's ( BLC) Dallas Morning News and WFAA-TV -- media companies cannot own both a newspaper and TV station in the same market. There are also heavy restrictions on duopoly ownership of two TV stations in one market. Analysts and investors will be looking for some daylight from Martin on how he intends to address what many media owners perceive as antiquated rules that hinder growth at old-line media companies trying to compete in a new-media world. AT&T's planned merger with BellSouth ( BLS) will also force Martin to "reconsider the cable ownership cap," according to Marangi, because of the same competitive pressure.