For the first time since the term of FCC Commissioner Tate expired and Chairman Martin resigned, the FCC will be back to full strength with the Senate’s approval of new FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Attwell Baker.  What issues of importance to broadcasters will the Commission, now headed by Chairman Julius Genachowski, take up in coming months?   The new Chairman, who gave a number of interviews last week with the trade and popular press, emphasized the importance of the broadband rollout.  Beyond that, his priorities for the broadcast media were not detailed.  He did, however, emphasize, that any broadcast regulation (specifically referencing the mandatory review of the broadcast ownership rules that must begin next year), would have to take into account the realities of the marketplace – including the current economic conditions.

Beyond that, there were few clues as to the new FCC’s priorities in the broadcast world.  But, even though there are no indications of the FCC’s priorities, there are many open broadcast issues that the Commission will, sooner or later, need to resolve.  Some involve fundamental questions of priorities – trying to decide which user of the spectrum should be preferred over others.  Other issues deal with questions of what kind of public service obligations broadcasters will face.  And yet another set of issues deal with just the nitty gritty technical issues with which the FCC is often faced.  Let’s look at some of these open issues that may affect the broadcast industry. 


Continue Reading A Full Five Person FCC – What’s Next For Broadcasters?

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced that he will be leaving the Commission on Tuesday as the new President is inaugurated, and thus will not be present at the FCC to set any last minute policy for the DTV transition.  In fact, if Martin had decided to stay for the end of the transition, he might well have had to stick around for a while, as there are bills making their way through Congress to delay the February 17 deadline for the transition to digital television.  Senator Rockefeller has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline to June 12, which Senate Republicans blocked last week, though it will reportedly be reintroduced this week.  At the same time, the three remaining Commissioners have all released letters that indicate that there are significant transition problems that need to be resolved before the transition deadline.  While there are those who wonder if the delay will really solve the problems that may exist – the movement is in the direction of a delay.

The letters from the Commissioners are most interesting.  First came a letter from Commissioner McDowell, not directed to Congress, but instead to Chairman Martin, publicly asking for information about the FCC’s DTV phone bank to answer questions from consumers about the transition.  According to the McDowell letter, he was unable to get information about the status of upgrades to the system to handle the expected influx of calls at the end of the transition.  McDowell also complained about calls that were not answered at all, or which had long wait times, when consumers called – wait times that often resulted in connections with a voicemail system.  And he raised questions about the failure of the phonebank to be open on weekends.  It has now been announced that IBM has been hired to man the phonebank, perhaps answering some of the questions Commissioner McDowell raised in his letter.


Continue Reading Kevin Martin Departs as Congress Looks at June 12 DTV Transition Deadline – While Remaining Commissioners Write Letters About Transition Problems

As the Obama administration fills its top level government posts, all eyes are now turning to the next levels of government appointments which, at some point, will include a new Chair of the FCC and potentially other new FCC Commissioners. We wrote about our hopes for an Obama administration at the FCC immediately after the election, and now other voices in Washington are weighing in. And, as one might expect, with so many different perspectives, the advice is far from consistent. As we wrote in our analysis, the appointment of the FCC Chair is crucial as it is the FCC Chair, far more than the President or the White House, who sets the tone for Communications policy. This is made clear by the extensive regulations either adopted or proposed for broadcasters by the current Republican FCC, seemingly at the direction of the current chairman, regulations that would not have been expected from a Republican administration.  In light of the economic challenges facing broadcasters, as evidenced by today’s news that two television companies – Tribune and Equity – declared bankruptcy, and another, NBC, has announced a cut back in prime time programming, replacing it with a prime time, 5 day a week Jay Leno program. 

So what should the transition team look to accomplish at the FCC?  In one of the most perceptive articles that I’ve seen recently, Harry Jessell in TV Newsday has urged the new Commission to simply do nothing on broadcast regulation for the next year. The current state of the economy and its ramifications for the advertising that is the lifeblood of the broadcast industry simply leaves no room for broadcasters to have to bear new costs for new regulations.  Broadcasting and Cable magazine has echoed that sentiment last week.  Recently, not only have we seen the economy and the state of the broadcast industry been reflected by the actions announced by Tribune, Equity and NBC today, but we’ve seen numerous mainstream press articles about the economic peril in which the entire broadcast industry finds itself.  In one recent article, radio’s dramatic decline in revenues was highlighted, even as the industry’s listenership remains high (as confirmed by BIA’s recent prediction that radio revenues will decline by 7% in the coming year, coming after declines this year – perhaps the first two year decline in revenues in radio history). I recently attended the Radio Ink Forecast 2009 conference in New York.   While the conference is off the record, I don’t think that I’d be betraying any confidences to state that there was much concern about the short term health of the radio industry. 


Continue Reading As the FCC Transition Progresses, The Broadcast Industry Shows Economic Strains – Tribune and Equity Declare Bankruptcy and NBC Cuts Programming Costs By Putting Leno on at 10 PM, Five Days A Week

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.


Continue Reading The Promise of an Obama Administration for Broadcast and Communications Regulation