With Barack Obama's historic victory just sinking in, all over Washington (and no doubt elsewhere in the country), the speculation begins as to what the new administration will mean to various sectors of the economy (though, in truth, that speculation has been going on for months). What will his administration mean for broadcasters? Will the Obama administration mean more regulation? Will the fairness doctrine make a return? What other issues will highlight his agenda? Or will the administration be a transformational one - looking at issues far beyond traditional regulatory matters to a broader communications policy that will look to make the communications sector one that will help to drive the economy? Some guesses, and some hopes, follow.
First, it should be emphasized that, in most administrations, the President has very little to do with the shaping of FCC policy beyond his appointment of the Commissioners who run the agency. As we have seen with the current FCC, the appointment of the FCC Chairman can be the defining moment in establishing a President's communications policy. The appointment of Kevin Martin has certainly shaped FCC policy toward broadcasters in a way that would never have been expected in a Republican administration, with regulatory requirements and proposals that one could not have imagined 4 years ago from the Bush White House. To see issues like localism, program content requirements and LPFM become such a large part of the FCC agenda can be directly attributed to the personality and agenda of the Chairman, rather than to the President. But, perhaps, an Obama administration will be different.
One of the specific proposals of the Obama campaign is the promise to appoint a Chief Technology Officer as a cabinet-level position to help coordinate policy across the many government agencies that deal with technology and communications. This position would be designed to develop policies that will enhance the competitive position of the United States in the world-wide technology revolution. Clearly, such a position will create a new executive-level focus on communications policy that will affect the workings of the FCC. How will this focus impact broadcasters? With the unanimous bipartisan decision of the FCC on Election Day approving the use of unlicensed devices in the television band, the so-called "white spaces" decision, one might have a glimpse of the kinds of regulatory actions that could be expected from an Obama FCC (though hopefully not an example of the procedures for making that decision). No longer will the traditional media or established communications companies be favored if there is the potential for some sort of transformative technology that can increase US technological competitiveness.
But the hope for an Obama administration is that the rhetoric of a transformative candidacy, one geared toward uniting the various divides of the country, will seep into the broader workings of the administrative agencies in Washington - that the pitched battles of one industry versus another, or one partisan viewpoint over another, will be replaced by a more cooperative spirit that will move the country, and specific industries forward. One would hope that this spirit would encourage compromise, and would bring a new openness to government that will allow real discussion to take place on issues, rather than decisions being made based on agendas that are set in stone before the evidence is in and the arguments made. One would hope that some of the unyielding positions that some regulators have taken on communications policy issues would be more open to persuasion and discussion.
To be more specific, one would hope that an Obama administration would, in the broadcast regulatory arena, be open to recognizing that we have a pretty incredible broadcast service in this country - one that can rapidly adapt to disasters, and can bend and shape itself to the needs and desires of the audience. While there have been excesses in broadcasting here and there, these tend to be self-correcting, as witnessed by the recent divestitures of many radio and television stations by big groups - helping to bring back some of the localism lost by the industry's rapid consolidation in the early part of this decade.
Some have feared that the return of a Democratic FCC will result in the return of the kinds of nitty-gritty broadcast regulation that has seemingly been advocated by some quarters of the Democratic party - a return of the Fairness Doctrine, the kinds of detailed programming disclosure requirements that have been adopted but not yet implemented for television broadcasters that impose great costs without any discernible regulatory benefit (see our post here), or the adoption of other specific regulations that increase government mandates without corresponding benefits.
But I am hopeful that an Obama administration would not be one to adopt unproductive regulation. Clearly, the Obama administration will be one that will want to stress inclusiveness and opportunity for all in the media, and will look for ways to encourage minorities and other new entrants into broadcast ownership. But if we look at the recent localism proceedings, for instance, we see that many members of the minority community have actually opposed the kinds of specific regulatory obligations that some have attributed to the Democratic Commissioners, as minority broadcasters and other new entrants realize that they need to make a living operating a station - that broadcasting is a business that must generate a profit. And that specific and detailed regulation take flexibility and innovation away from broadcasters, and usually impact small broadcasters more than large conglomerates. So an administration that wants to encourage new owners can't engage in a wholesale re-regulation of the broadcast industry.
Do I expect some more regulation? Of course - but that seems to be a reaction to the current climate for all industries in Washington where there seems to be building a general consensus that that the philosophy of deregulation may have gone too far (see our post here). But I would look for regulation around the edges, regulation that imposes some public interest obligations on broadcasters but ones that can be lived with - not ones that are imposed simply for the sake of regulation and which can impose a crushing burden on small business.
From the rumors swirling around DC of the names of potential Chairs of the FCC in the new administration, many have worked at past Democratic Commissions, but many of these have spent time in the business community since leaving the FCC, and are thus familiar with meeting a payroll and the costs of regulation. I believe that right now, we should keep hope alive and look at the Obama administration as one that may bring a new emphasis to the communications world while not unduly burdening those that are already operating in that world. It is a new day - let's hope that it is indeed a brighter one for broadcasters.