They hail him as a hero.

He is Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and, for proponents of family values, the man who can shield America's living rooms from the coarse and offensive offerings of the cable television industry.

With his Harry Potter glasses and polite Southern manner, Martin, 42, a Republican up-and-comer, has become the nation's indecency czar.

"Kevin Martin has been our hero," said Tim Winter, executive director of the Parent Television Council in California, a group with 1.2 million members.

For the cable TV industry, including Philadelphia's giant Comcast Corp., Martin has been problematic.

He has opened up local pay-TV markets to cable competitors, made it cheaper for independent programmers to lease cable channels, publicly berated the industry for high cable bills, and capped Comcast's growth-through-acquisition strategy.

"The way he has steered the commission," said David L. Cohen, a Comcast executive vice president, "has made our regulatory challenge more daunting."

Cohen, who goes out of his way to say none of this is personal, has had his differences with Martin.

The cable industry, led by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and the FCC are clashing over the availability of violent and racier content on cable systems.

Martin wants significant changes made. Cable companies say he doesn't have the legal power to get what he wants.

Time is running out for the FCC chairman and his right-leaning supporters, and the stakes are very high.

Martin says the nation's cable problems could be solved by requiring Comcast and other providers to sell cable channels individually, or a la carte. This form of sales could reduce cable bills by allowing customers to buy just the channels they truly like and watch.

Customers who found some cable entertainment distasteful would not have to subsidize the offensive channels that come in 200-channel packages.

Cable companies say the pay-per-channel model actually would cost more and would hurt small entertainment programmers.

Martin declined repeated requests from The Inquirer for an interview over the last six months, including two requests made in person.

In response to questions, his spokesman, Clyde Ensslin, e-mailed a copy of a speech Martin gave in May 2007 at the cable industry trade show in Las Vegas. Cable officials refer to it as the "I Don't Hate Cable Speech."

"I would like to set the record straight," Martin told the Las Vegas crowd. "I do not dislike cable. Quite the contrary - I am an avid cable customer. I subscribe to digital cable, have three set-top boxes, two DVRs, high-speed access and WiFi, all provided by cable."

With him at the FCC, Martin noted, cable companies signed up millions of new customers for phone and high-speed Internet service.

Broad new changes for cable would be an uphill battle for Martin at this point, many say. The Bush administration is a lame duck. Martin is dealing with an investigation into alleged mismanagement at the FCC - the issues include his possible withholding of information from other commissioners - by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The panel is led by Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.

As for next year, Republican presidential candidate John McCain has expressed support for a la carte programming. But cable officials think McCain would put his stamp on the FCC with a new chairman. Democratic candidate Barack Obama would be expected to nominate a Democrat to head the agency.

That does not please Martin supporters such as Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values Action in Ohio, who says he has been energized by Martin.

In 20 years, Burress said, "we never had an FCC chairman that cared about the indecency standards and the family until Kevin Martin."

Burress and others would like the cable industry to endorse the same programming standards as over-the-air broadcasters: No indecency on daytime and prime-time TV. Cable has not backed those standards because it does not believe it has to. Some say they believe that Martin is squeezing cable operators with regulatory actions in a bid to get them to exert pressure on entertainment companies to clean up programming.

The cable industry says just about anyone would be easier to deal with than Martin, and even telecommunications experts are puzzled over some of his actions.

"He does not seem to be ideologically pro-regulation or anti-regulation, or partisan," said James L. Gattuso, senior fellow for regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation, a free-market think tank in Washington.

"The factor that is most predictive of his positions is whether something helps the cable industry or hurts the cable industry. If something helps the cable industry, he'll be against it. If something hurts the cable industry, he'll be for it."

Competition in broadband and video should lead to a la carte programming if consumers want it, experts say. "It's strange to have a war on cable when there is more competition than ever before," Gattuso said.

Adam Thierer, senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, another think tank, said: "There is no doubt in my mind that a big part of the battle over a la carte is social or cultural in nature, and not just economic."

Rob Frieden, professor of telecommunications and law at Pennsylvania State University in State College, said the "the bad feelings" - between Martin and the cable industry - "are real."

"Cable is an easy mark," he said. "People love to hate cable, and cable is its own worst enemy when it comes to pricing."

Martin has solid Republican credentials. He was a top 2000 campaign official for President Bush, and his wife, Catherine, is the former chief spokeswoman for Vice President Cheney.

One of the youngest FCC chairmen in history, he has presided at the agency during a time of tumultuous changes in media and technology.

High-speed Internet connections are now as prevalent as toasters in U.S. homes.

Cellular-phone providers are challenging incumbent landline companies, which have seen their business shrink.

Newspapers have been hurt by the Internet and the fragmentation of advertising.

The federal government has ordered the phasing out of analog television for digital transmission of TV shows – a monumental and complex task at the FCC.

In the midst of this was cable, which has consolidated into a few major players, the largest being Comcast. It was developing new products such as video on demand and Internet phone service, or VoIP.

The industry also was increasing cable prices faster than the rate of inflation because, it said, the cost for sports and other entertainment was soaring.

Martin said the industry needed more competition. He set out to make that happen through regulatory actions that, so far, have helped competitors of cable pay-TV but have yet to control increases in cable prices.

One of his triumphs was instituting a three-month "shot clock" for local towns to act on new video-franchise requests from pay-TV competitors, such as Verizon Communications Inc.

Cable appealed the new regulation. A federal court in Ohio upheld the shot clock - and the FCC head was elated.

"Over the last 10 years, cable rates have more than doubled," Martin said Friday in a statement after the court action. "Consumers need greater choice and more competition to help address the soaring price of cable television. This ruling helps ensure that new competitors to cable are not subjected to unreasonable delays, build-out requirements, and fees when trying to compete with the incumbent cable operators."

Many of Martin's actions have helped Comcast, Cohen said. He cited the FCC chairman's approval of the acquisition of the Adelphia cable company by Comcast and Time Warner Cable Inc., and the deregulation of basic-level cable rates in more than 100 towns. Comcast has about 24 million cable subscribers.

Martin believes that a la carte would be good for consumers and, Cohen said, "it doesn't make him a bad person."

"I don't think it's fair to say that Kevin Martin is out to get the cable industry," he said.

Cohen said he believed the cable industry had won the public debate over a la carte by proving on Capitol Hill that it ultimately would be bad for consumers.

Other decisions, such as Martin's regulation capping Comcast at 30 percent of the pay-TV market, were disappointing, Cohen said.

"We're challenging it in court and we don't like doing that, but that's the way it works," he said.

Martin's public statements about the lack of competition in the pay-TV market are unfortunate, Cohen said.

At the same time, "Kevin Martin and any other FCC commissioner can express their opinion without us saying it shows they have a vendetta against cable."

Guessing what Martin will do next is great sport in the cable industry.

Some say they believe that in the time he has left as chairman, Martin could return to his main goal of a la carte.

Or he may try to untie channels, or unbundle them, at the wholesale level. Big content companies such as the Walt Disney Co. force small cable companies to buy spin-off channels. So if the cable companies get ESPN, they also have to take ESPN2, ESPN Classic and ESPNU. This fills up small cable systems with programming that customers might not like, or watch, small operators say.

Wholesale unbundling would not be a political home run for Martin, who some say would like to return home to North Carolina and run for elected office. But it would push the cable industry in a direction Martin would like it to go.

Matthew M. Polka, president and chief operating officer of the American Cable Association in Pittsburgh, an association of small and rural cable operators, has supported unbundling. Polka's association says it believes the bundling of channels benefits Comcast and Time Warner, which can negotiate good deals with content companies such as Disney, and which have their own programming arms.

Polka said he did feel the same chill from Martin that big cable operators do.

"We have an open door with the chairman, and he has been willing to hear us out," Polka said. "I have tried to not look at this as a battle or a vendetta, but see it just as a difference of opinion," he said.

Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.