On Thursday, the Obama administration appointed FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to be the Acting FCC Chairman until the administration selects its permanent Chairman, and that person is confirmed by the Senate. As we’ve written, the rumors are that the permanent Chair will be Julius Genachowski, a former classmate of the President. But, as far as we know (and according to the White House website’s list of appointments made so far), that appointment has not yet been formally made and sent to the Senate Commerce Committee for the initiation of hearings on the qualifications of the nominee. Commissioner Copps is the most senior of the remaining three Commissioners (Democrat Jonathan Adelstein and Republican Robert McDowell being the other two remaining Commissioners), and has been an outspoken advocate of more stringent regulation of the public interest performance of broadcasters (see, for instance, our posts here and here). What will his appointment as interim FCC chairman mean for broadcasters?
Initially, it would seem reasonable to assume that the Acting Chair will be principally occupied with the DTV transition, as least for the next few weeks, and perhaps longer if the pending legislation to delay the transition deadline until June 12 is adopted. It would also seem reasonable to assume that the Commission, at least for the short term, will not be tackling major regulatory initiatives (like the localism proceeding), until the permanent FCC Chair has taken office. One of the initial Executive Orders that was issued by the Obama administration was to freeze the actions of administrative executive agencies until the political appointments made by the administration have been confirmed and taken their places, so that the new administration is not saddled by regulations that don’t fit with its overall political agenda. While many in DC believe that this order does not apply to an "independent agency" like the FCC (which technically does not report to the administration, but instead to Congress), it would be reasonable to assume that the spirit of the order would be followed by the FCC.
In addition, one would hope that the changes in the business outlook for the advertising supported media brought on by the current economic climate would change some of the Commissioner’s past positions on some of the issues facing broadcasters (see this Hollywood Reporter article on a Stanford Group analysis of public media companies, including a sell recommendation on "just about anything related to radio.") Just as the Obama administration has recognized that the economic conditions have meant that it must postpone some of its legislative initiatives (like tax increases on high income individuals), it would seem that imposing additional costs on broadcasters when their revenues are on a dramatic downturn, when their staffs are being cut, and when a number of major broadcasters have already declared bankruptcy and others have current stock values far less than their outstanding obligations, would not bring about increased public service, but instead might well bring about more station’s going off the air or further limiting their service. Now is not the time to be counterproductive by damaging the economic health of an industry that, more than just about any other, produces virtually all of its jobs here in the United States.