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
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.
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?