This past week, both FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Commissioner Robert McDowell have announced that they are leaving the FCC in the near future. While their exact departure dates are uncertain, the press is already buzzing with anticipation about who will next lead the FCC, and who will take the place of Commissioner McDowell. The President gets to appoint the Chairman and new Commissioner, but his choices have to be approved by the US Senate. While there have from time to time in the past been delays in the approval process of new FCC Commissioners, with one Democrat and one Republican leaving, there is some speculation in Washington that the confirmation process can move forward in tandem, and hopefully without significant undue delay.
In the interim, the FCC can continue to do business with three Commissioners should the replacements not be confirmed before the departures. But what will this change in the FCC mean for broadcasters? In short, the answer is that it is probably anyone’s guess. There is very little that can be discerned in advance about the impact of the selection of any Commissioner. Certainly, a new Chairman can have a significant impact in shaping the agenda pursued by the Commission, but one never knows exactly what that agenda will be until the Chairman takes his or her seat and starts to act. Sometimes the results are surprising as with the last Republican Chair who introduced many very regulatory proposals to govern broadcasting (see, for instance, the adoption of the Form 355 for television that, had it gone into effect, would have required detailed, voluminous reporting of all sorts of information about public interest programming by television stations; as well as still pending proceedings on sponsorship identification obligations and the initiation of a vigorous anti-indecency regime).
The recent FCC leadership did start with some noise in the broadcast area – with a Future of Media study and a broadband report proposing to reclaim some of the TV spectrum for wireless uses. The Media Report, when finally released as a report on the Information Needs of Communities, has led to a few significant regulatory proposals – those the TV online public file became a reality, and the proposals for a new form for reporting on public interest programming remain under consideration.
The reclamation of some of the TV spectrum for wireless uses is now well underway, and will no doubt become a reality in some form in the next few years. The review of the ownership rules is mandated by statute, and will also continue no matter who the new commissioners may be – though when a decision on that always controversial issue will be reached is anyone’s guess (see our recent article on the delays in that proceeding). On the radio side of things, more LPFM stations will also be coming to the FM band – regardless of any leadership change at the FCC.
There are myriad other broadcast issues that could be tackled by any new commission. In addition to the open issues that we’ve mentioned above, one new initiative is the potential improvement of the service provided by the AM band. As we have written, Commissioner Pai, who will remain on the FCC for the foreseeable future, has made this a priority. And while one commissioner cannot do anything without the assistance of other Commissioners, by highlighting the issues and leading the charge, an issue like this can be brought to the foreground where, with lobbying by other interested parties, something can happen in the future.
So while you will no doubt read many articles speculating as to what the next FCC will bring to the broadcast world, that speculation, like predicting the winners of basketball tournaments or even who the new Pope will be, are often made and soon forgotten. We will see what the new Chairman and Commissioner bring only once they are seated, and when they start to consider the issues that come up during their term. So, as we have said many times, stay tuned….