Genachowski: FCC Still Justified in Regulating Broadcast Content
New FCC chairman confirms commission will conduct inquiry into state of journalism industry
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/30/2009 10:00:00 PM
New FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seems not quite settled into his new digs: a spacious corner office on the eighth floor of FCC headquarters in Washington. It remains a work in progress, with empty bookshelves behind his desk and walls not yet filled with mementos or evidence of past accolades. But there is the Willis Reed-signed basketball under glass-Genachowski is a Knicks fan with fond memories of the 1969-70 season that brought an NBA championship to New York City-as testament to one of his great loves, one he shares with his old Harvard buddy, Barack Obama.
But there is something of a metaphor for the size of the bureaucracy Genachowksi inherits, and of the tasks ahead of him, in the large dead-tree dictionary that sits open next to the door. "It doesn't have the word ‘broadband' in it, or even the word ‘Internet,'" he says, adding that "maybe we will find a ‘green' way to be able to look up words."
Genachowski made a fine second impression during his meet-and-greet with reporters soon after his installation June 29. Trim, well-dressed, bright-eyed and with a firm-bordering-on "say uncle" handshake, he seems a man secure in his own skin and convictions. The industries he regulates will know where he's coming from, though they may not always like where he is going. Even the well-dressed "protester"-Weigel Broadcasting President Norman Shapiro-standing in front of the FCC with a sign saying "Please Decide" (at issue: some low-power transfers dating from last August) says he thinks Genachowski will make a great chairman.
The chairman made clear that he believes broadcast content needs regulating, both because it is still the sole source of TV for millions of broadcast-only homes, and because of its popularity in homes with cable and satellite.
Genachowski talked to B&C's John Eggerton last week about his vision of the media landscape, broadcast and cable regulation, the challenge of broadband and more. While his answers were as controlled and careful as the Harvard lawyer he is, they also revealed something of the man and his mission.
That includes relying on his new general counsel to help navigate indecency enforcement and make recommendations on issues of cable programming access and carriage. Genachowski also urges the public and industry to take the FCC's broadband plan "very seriously."
The chairman adds that the FCC will look into the health of the news media. His predecessor, then-acting chairman Michael Copps, proposed the inquiry.As for the Fairness Doctrine-it's not happening, Genachowski says. But diversity of voices-that's in the FCC's DNA.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview:
Onetime FCC Chairman Newton Minow famously called TV a "vast wasteland." Updating TV to "video platform," how would you characterize the landscape?
I would not attempt to one-up Chairman Minow. We have gone from a world when Newton Minow was chairman of just a few broadcast channels going into every home to, for homes that get cable and satellite, many, many more channels. There is certainly more variety. There has been an incredible mushrooming of creativity on broadcast television since the 1960s. And there have been lots of powerful examples since the '60s of great news, great documentaries and great entertainment on TV.
It is also true that parents are very frustrated when they turn on the TV, whether it's a broadcast-only home or whether they are cable or satellite subscribers. They are frustrated because they see things they don't think are appropriate for their kids, and they are frustrated by their [lack of] ability to do something about it. There is also frustration and confusion about all the different media platforms kids deal with today, with dramatic changes from when Newton Minow was chairman and raising a whole host of new issues.
Parents today have hundreds of TV channels in the home, they have a computer in the kitchen, they have a video console in the basement and a mobile phone in their kids' pockets. Each of those devices represents real opportunity for their kids and for the economic growth of the country, and new sources for news, information and entertainment. But they also present a whole host of new issues.
What should or can the FCC do to help them navigate this landscape?
The first step is to look at it seriously and be clear about what the objectives are, and to take a look at what is actually going on in the marketplace. I don't think the objectives have changed since the Children's Television Act was enacted in the 1990s. And though I haven't thought about it before, I expect the objectives haven't changed since Newton Minow was chairman [in the early 1960s] in this area relating to kids. And those are promoting the education and health of our kids, of protecting kids, and empowering parents.
As you know, we announced last week that the FCC will be doing an inquiry into children and the digital media landscape. And we are already doing an inquiry required by the Senate into parental empowerment tools. So the first step is to understand what is going on. The second step is for the FCC to ask what it can do to get better information in the market.
One of the steps we will be taking is revamping the FCC Website with respect to the Children's Television Act information that is public, that broadcasters supply, and that is already on the FCC Website if you look hard enough. We are going to turn that information into something that is user-friendly and parent-friendly.
You signaled that the FCC would ban interactive ads in kids' shows, absent a parental opt-in. Why is that necessary?
The commission looked at this several years ago and tentatively concluded that the risk of interactive advertising in digital programming for kids in the absence of parental consent was too high. This is the ability of a kid watching digital TV and clicking through to a commercial sales site or program. If parents want their kid to have that feature, that is fine. But if parents are concerned, kids won't be able to easily poke around through children's television programming into commercial sites. From what I have seen, that tentative conclusion seems correct. I want the FCC to finish the process and analyze the record; based on what I know now, I think the outcome will be to codify that tentative conclusion.
We want to clarify that you are not yet concluding that three hours of educational TV per week is too much or even too little, but that essentially everything is still on the table.
It is the right time to have everything on the table. It has been [almost] 20 years since the Children's Television Act was adopted. The commission over the years has taken steps to enforce it. That shouldn't stop. Broadcasting remains a unique medium. It is still the only source of television entertainment for millions of Americans. But there is no question that the landscape has changed to the point where taking a fresh look at kids in the digital media world against the objectives that we all share is completely right and appropriate.
You used the word "unique" in your testimony on the kids' rules, and talked about how there was more choice "for those who could pay for it." It sounds like you are convinced broadcast content still needs to be regulated.
Yes, I am convinced that in a world where there are millions of Americans for whom broadcast television is their only video medium, that the core justifications for commission action in this area are unchanged. So, the core mission for the FCC is to enforce public interest obligations with respect to broadcast spectrum. That does not change in a world where so many Americans still only receive broadcast television, and where broadcast television still is, even in many of the homes that receive other forms of programming, the dominant and most-watched form of programming.
The FCC has essentially put the backlog of indecency complaints on the back burner while the courts hash things out. The Supreme Court has weighed in and said the fleeting-profanity justification passed muster, and nudity may as well. Where is the FCC in terms of what it can do on indecency enforcement?
The FCC's job in indecency is to defend and enforce the laws. I spoke in my confirmation hearings about sharing the concern parents have about what children see on TV. So the FCC's job is to enforce the law and address pending complaints in the backlog.
Will you be working through that backlog?
We will be. Litigation is ongoing. Our general counsel started last week, and he has not had a chance to look into it and make a recommendation with respect to overall litigation strategy. Our responsibilities are to defend and enforce the law. This is an area where the general counsel's view on what the right process is moving forward-since the litigation still is pending-is important. He is in the middle of studying it.
What can you tell us about the state of journalism inquiry circulated by then-acting chairman Michael Copps?
I have real concerns, as many Americans do, about what is going on in America with respect to newspapers, local news and information. It has been an area of ongoing interest at the FCC from the beginning. Local news and information has been a core pillar of the Communications Act and remains that. So I share the concern of many Americans, and I respect the leadership the commissioner has taken. The commission will be tackling this topic, but we haven't announced a timetable.
Let's talk about broadband for a moment. Is it broadband plan first and everything else second, or do you have to juggle all these balls at once?
The commission has an obligation to juggle all the balls. I have tried in my public remarks to staff and in meetings to outline the strategic priorities: promoting universal broadband-essential; promoting job creation, economic growth, innovation and investment-essential; protecting and empowering consumers, public safety, promoting a vibrant media landscape and revitalizing and retooling the FCC. This is a manageable set of strategic priorities that the commission can tackle and will tackle. We have to be able to do more than one thing at once.
Weigel Broadcasting President Norman Shapiro told us he has three low-power TV station-license transfer applications pending that were filed last August, and that the FCC hasn't ruled on them yet. He says all he wants is a decision. Is there hope for him?
I am not familiar with his case, but one of the topics I raise with each of the bureaus and offices is backlog. The public has a right to expect that the commission will expeditiously decide matters that are before it. I have asked each of the different bureaus to look at their backlogs to the extent that they have them and take care of matters that are languishing.
Diversity of voices and opinion was part of the president's overarching communications policy position. Can you draw a distinction between the Fairness Doctrine, which you oppose, and promoting diversity of voices?
That's a good question. I would ask those who think they are related to explain to me how they are. The Fairness Doctrine ultimately has the huge risk of getting the government involved in censoring speech on the basis of political views and opinion. And that is not acceptable to me. Chilling speech was the core reason that the Fairness Doctrine was repealed. The commission, as long as I am here, won't have any interest in reinstating it and doing anything to censor speech based on political views and opinions.
The interest in diversity goes back to the beginnings of the Communications Act. It goes back to core principles underlying the First Amendment. We benefit as a society when we have a vibrant marketplace of ideas representing different points of view. And that is a proposition that I don't think has been disputed.
Do you have any concerns in the area of access to, or carriage of, cable programming?
As you know, some complaints and petitions have been filed, and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on specific ones or pre-judge them. But in thinking about the areas, I will be focused on competition and consumer choice. I don't think there is any dispute that competition and consumer choice will drive innovation and, ultimately, service to consumers. That is the frame in which the commission will be looking at specific disputes. There are statutory issues that we will have to wrestle with as part of that, but the core purposes underlying the original statutory provisions are those principles, competition and consumer choice.
When you are doing that wrestling, do you think the so-called "terrestrial loophole" will get pinned or have its arms raised in victory?
Well said. Whatever happens, we will use that framing. I think it is appropriate to let the bureau and the general counsel's office look at it carefully, especially since there are pending matters.
Have you looked at the broadband comments and reply comments?
I have had them summarized.
[FCC broadband czar] Blair Levin said recently that the comments were aspirational, but he was looking more for action plans. Was that your sense of it?
We are a country in need of a national broadband strategy 10 years ago. But we are where we are. It is a terrific thing for the country that the president and Congress instructed the FCC to develop a broadband strategy.
There is a very wide interest and support for the country pushing forward on broadband. This is our generation's major infrastructure challenge. It's what we need to get right to have an enduring engine for economic growth, job creation and innovation in this country.
Why do I say all this? It is very important for the process and participation to "meet the moment." We need to make sure that everyone who has data and ideas that can help the country meet this real challenge is participating in the process and taking it seriously. I am happy to send the message that we want the entire community of people who have an interest here to take it very seriously because it deserves to be taken that way.
Do you see the broadband report hard date being moved to June 12, 2010, or can you commit to Feb. 17?
We are going to hit our target.
This week marks your "monthiversary" at the commission. I know you have walked these halls as top aide to then-chairman Reed Hundt. What has surprised you about being chairman?
I am pleasantly surprised by the desire of the staff at the FCC to work to revitalize and re-tool the agency. This is not a staff that needs to be convinced that our communications infrastructure is vital to the success of the country, and that the FCC has a powerfully important role to play as the nation's expert agency. With respect to the staff that is here, they are up for the challenge of revitalizing and re-tooling the agency, and there is widespread understanding that there is a lot of work to do to make sure the agency functions in a way that meets the challenges of the day.
The other thing that has been a pleasant surprise is the quality of the new senior staff that we have been able to recruit. An extraordinary number of talented people have become part of this effort to work together with the staff that is here.
Is this going to be an Ivy League commission?
If you look, you will see a great mix of backgrounds and experiences. I wouldn't say this is a surprise, but one of the things I have enjoyed about meeting with the bureaus and offices is that you find yourself in rooms with lawyers, economists, technologists, M.B.A.s, physicists, people from military backgrounds, from industry, people who are coming here out of college. To me, this is one of the exciting things about the agency.
I feel very strongly that the best policies don't come from a group of like-minded people with similar backgrounds and similar training looking at the same issue. They come from a group of people trained in different ways, with different backgrounds and experiences, coming together and really pushing each other on what's the right answer for the country. We take personnel and staff very seriously against this background.
So I am thrilled to have a lot of people here who have extraordinary credentials. But what really excites me about the team that we are putting together is the mixture of backgrounds and experiences and disciplines. The clear instruction that they have gotten from me is to respect each other's backgrounds and work together, and stay focused on our strategic priorities and what we really need to do to serve the public interest.
The fact remains that Genachowski has his priorities mixed up. Broadcast does not need to be regulated. the persons who have interest in these agendas are idealogically based to remove and stifle depictions of what they do not like to see and hear. instead their careless actions will not only unfairly regulate content, but create a generation of lazy parents dependent on government boards to keep their children from seeing what they may deem harmful, rather than monitor and sdupervise their children's viewing habits as well as teach them about the dangers and issues that are present in the media- thereby raising independent and wary individuals who will not be taken in by deceptions in the communications landscape. however what does require regulating is the news which very frequently treats opinions as fact as though they should not be opposed and discussed. this is where the fairness doctrine comes in. in the respect of preventing disporportion in the news media, who are not entiltled to full free speech privliges, given that they are speaking from a platform that gives them greater access to a wider array of viewers /listerners. this can not go on, in which creatrivity is stifled and discussion is not promoted in the areas of dealings most sensative to the public.
matt jones - 8/1/2009 10:49:13 PM EDT
ChickaBOOMer -- Obama FCC Czar: No Fairness Doctrine
StewartIII - 7/31/2009 6:36:00 PM EDT
The Chairman correctly states: "The interest in diversity goes back to the beginnings of the Communications Act. It goes back to core principles underlying the First Amendment." Unfortunately, the 1934 Communications Act has been supplanted by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and as a result, radio speech today is not free, but owned by a few corporations which use the public airwaves to promote a self serving political agenda. Progressive voices which garner high ratings are routinely being taken off the air, so this is a matter of propaganda, not profit. While the new FCC Chairman seems to have the correct priorities, he does not have the power to restore balance to the airwaves. That will require an act of Congress.
Sue Wilson - 7/31/2009 1:56:23 PM EDT
I heartily agree with Chairman Genachowski that fostering expanded broadband availability is a legitimate role for government. The federal government played a crucial role in building the Transcontinental Railroad and the Interstate Highway System.
However, the idea of "a diversity of voices" in media is a concept found nowhere in the Constitution. The idea that politicians and government regulators should have any role in determining how many and what kinds of "voices" are permissible is antithetical to our First Amendment.
Also, given the Chairman's concern about the "millions of people" who depend on free TV and radio, he should aggressively push to have TV and radio stations unshackled from onerous and unconstitutional ownership regulations. Otherwise, there will soon be nothing for those multitudes to watch and listen to.
LEE SPIECKERMAN - 7/30/2009 10:28:23 PM EDT
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