Editorial: The Chair Recognized

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s announced exit from the commission
sometime in the next several weeks was that proverbial
other shoe Washington had been waiting to hear drop for months.

Genachowski’s statement triggered a good deal
of praise for his tenure, mixed with some harsh
criticism from anti-consolidation activists. The
chairman’s take, according to aides, has generally
been that if you’re getting heat from both ends of
the spectrum (excuse the pun), you must be doing
something right. We’re not sure that always holds,
but in this case we believe it does.

The chairman got a lot right during his almost
four years in the big chair. That included starting
to migrate the Universal Service Fund to broadband,
taking a number of steps to give cable operators
more control of their bandwidth to make
it easier to build out their service—though usually
it was the broadband side that was getting
the boost—and taking a cautious approach to
calls to remake retransmission procedure.

The chairman succeeded in getting cable operators
to the table and securing their buy-in, or
at least relative silence, on network neutrality
rules that could have been worse. And while we
disagreed with his decision to keep the Title II
docket open, it was a strategic chip no one
should have expected him to give up.

Given that then-Sen. Barack Obama weighed
in against loosening the newspaper/broadcast
cross-ownership rules back when Republican
Commissioner Kevin Martin proposed doing so,
Genachowski had plenty of cover, and almost
certainly two votes, for resolving the media ownership
rules by taking no action. Instead, he defended
the Martin rules and tried to reintroduce a
similar change. The ban should have been lifted,
but at least the chairman recognized that broadcasters
(and newspapers) needed some help.

It was probably a strategic misstep to try to separate
the rule change from the diversity studies
that were supposed to be conducted at the same
time. Genachowski has cited budget issues, but
we’re not sure that flies. The result is that a vote on
media ownership rules will now be kicked down
the road to the next chairman, with broadcasters
essentially resigned to having no help in sight.

It’s hard to lay fault either with Genachowski
or the administration for focusing on broadband,
given the explosion of that technology into every
corner of life and businesses. But we do, at least
as far as the other side of the coin, which is the
treatment of broadcasting. Both the FCC and the
administration have sometimes appeared to have a
blind spot about the millions of Americans, many
of them minorities, who rely on over-the-air TV,
and not just as a lifeline for news and emergency
information, but as their affordable
entertainment, some of it
targeted to their particular culture
and in their own language.

An administration that cared
enough to spend billions to
make sure the over-the-air audience
could receive digital overthe-
air broadcasts via the converter
box program appeared to
suddenly downplay the impact
on that audience of reclaiming
spectrum, or moving to a broadband
model of video delivery.

And while the FCC did spend
too much time defending the
previous chairman’s fleeting indecency
enforcement policy—frankly, five seconds
would have been too much time—Genachowski
last fall signaled the FCC was not so interested in
being a national nanny. He reinforced that last week
with the news that the commission had dismissed
over 1 million complaints for a variety of reasons,
and was seeking comment on whether the FCC
should return to a more restrained policy. It should.

To his credit, Genachowski did not tilt at windmills
with a lance of regulatory righteousness or
appear to view consolidation as bad in and of
itself—see “Comcast/NBCU, deal of”—which
did not sit well with anti-consolidation activists
for whom any help to the industry was seen as
consorting with the enemy. Instead, the chairman
took a more pragmatic approach—having had to,
in a past life, actually run a business and negotiate
broadcast deals, and in his current life at least
recognizing that the marketplace had changed.

We’ll reserve our wish list for the next chairman
for another editorial. But for now, suffice it to say
that any future FCC chief who does not support
the long-overdue lifting of the ban on newspaper/
broadcast cross-ownership does not have a sufficient
handle on the marketplace to warrant the seat.