An interview with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has just been released by Broadcasting and Cable magazine. In that interview, the Chairman confirms press reports (which we cited here) that there is a planned FCC Notice of Inquiry to look into the news media in the digital world – the first public confirmation of this
In a speech to the Free Press Summit, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps suggested that broadcast license renewals should no longer be a "postcard", but instead should be a real test of the broadcaster’s service to the public interest – and should happen every three years, rather than on the eight year renewal cycle that is currently provided for by the law. While the Chairman acknowledged that many suggest that the old media are in troubled times and may well be supplanted by new forms of communications, "If old media is going to be with us a while still…we still need to get serious about defining broadcasters’ public interest obligations and reinvigorating our license renewal process." In other words, while broadcasters may be dying, we should regulate them while we can.
First, it should be pointed out that the broadcast license renewal is no longer a postcard, and really hasn’t been for almost 20 years. The current renewal forms require certifications on many matters demonstrating a broadcaster’s service to the public and its compliance with the rules, and additional documentation on EEO performance and other matters. TV broadcasters also have substantial renewal submissions on their compliance with their obligations under the Children’s television rules. Issues of noncompliance with the rules resulted in many fines in the last renewal cycle, demonstrating that this is not a process where the FCC is without teeth. Yet most of these fines were for paperwork violations (e.g. not keeping detailed records of EEO outreach or quarterly issues programs lists demonstrating the public interest programming broadcast by a station), not for any substantive claims that station licensees were fundamentally unqualified and should forfeit their licenses. In fact, the Acting Chairman’s speech recognizes that most broadcasters do a fine job serving their communities, yet he believes that more regulation is necessary to police those that don’t. But is this the time to be imposing additional regulatory burdens on all of the industry, for the actions of a few. Will the overall public interest be served by such actions? .
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.
The press was abuzz yesterday with the news that Julius Genachowski is apparently the pick of the Obama Administration for the position of FCC Chairman. Mr. Genachowski was at the FCC during the Reed Hundt Administration, and has since worked in the private sector in the telecommunications industry, including work with Barry Diller and running a DC-based venture capital fund. From the positive reactions that the appointment has received from all quarters, the choice would seem to be a great one. But, in looking at some of the reactions, you have to question whether everyone has to be reading what they want to see into the new Commission. For instance, while the NAB has praised the choice of Genachowski (stating that he "has a keen intellect, a passion for public service, and a deep understanding of the important role that free and local broadcasting plays in American life"), so too did media-reform organization Free Press ("This moment calls for bold and immediate steps to spur competition, foster innovation and breathe new life into our communications sector. With his unique blend of business and governmental experience, Genachowski promises to provide the strong leadership we need.") What will this appointment really mean for broadcasters?
In short – who knows? When Kevin Martin was appointed Chairman of the FCC, few would have imagined that a former communications attorney, a person deeply involved in the Bush campaign, and a former staffer of FCC Commissioner Harold Furtchgott-Roth (perhaps the most free market Commissioner ever) would have supported sustained, wide-reaching inquiries into the underbrush of FCC regulation – e.g. localism, embedded advertising, indecency. So we can’t really know what a Chairman will do until he does it. The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both suggest that the new chairman will be focused on Internet issues, and may be less interested in indecency – but who knows?
A day after the Obama transition team wrote to Congress suggesting that the DTV transition now scheduled for February 17 be delayed, there are indications that a bandwagon effect is beginning to develop in favor of such a delay. Broadcasting and Cable magazine’s website reports that the four major TV networks have indicated that they support a delay in the transition if it will better serve their viewers, and that Senator Rockefeller has started drafting legislation to delay the transition. The New York Times featured a guest editorial from two former FCC Chairmen – Republican Michael Powell and Democrat William Kennard – supporting the delay (and mentioning one of the same issues that we had mentioned the day before – the need for education of consumers about the need for different antennas to receive the digital signal). But others are not so sure that a delay makes sense.
While the NY Times editorial may make it look like the delay request is a bipartisan effort, there are other indications that there is at least some evidence of partisan differences beginning to develop. The NY Times today quotes Joe Barton, a senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as opposing a change. Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the delay will confuse consumers, while Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein is quoted in the same article as being sympathetic to the postponement. While the political groups are taking sides, many in industry seem reluctant to delay the transition date.
Today FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin released a tentative agenda for the scheduled December 18, 2008 Open Commission Meeting. The tentative agenda, available here, contains a number of items that the Chairman has circulated to the other Commissioners for consideration at the upcoming Open Meeting. Whether these items actually make it to the agenda…