Washington

Obama Earns High Marks for Media Focus

First 100 days includes putting DTV, broadband in spotlight 5/02/2009 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Go to the White House home page and it is easy to find the DTV Delay Act prominently displayed under “Signed Legislation,” the third piece of legislation signed by the president after others promoting fair pay and children's health insurance.

Even before his administration took over, President Obama's transition team made changing the DTV transition date a priority.

That was driven by timing, of course, with the Feb. 17 date coming only weeks after he took office. But it was also reflective of the intersection of technology, economy and social policy that has put communications on the administration's to-do list in a number of areas, including the push for universal broadband and potentially stronger antitrust reviews of mergers as well as a more muscular Federal Trade Commission.

B&C spoke with a selection of media activists, policymakers and industry players about their read on the administration's first 100 days of media policy. The early returns for the president are positive.

'A breath of fresh air'

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps, who has had to deal with the consequences of the administration's eleventh-hour DTV date move, has nothing but praise for the first 100 days:

“The new administration has been a breath of fresh air, providing a level of engagement and leadership on communications issues that has been noticeably absent in recent years,” he told B&C last week.

Copps supported moving the transition date, long arguing that the FCC had not sufficiently coordinated the effort from the outset.

“Pushing for a short delay in the DTV transition date wasn't an easy thing to do, but it was right for consumers,” he noted. “Just as importantly, the administration kept its focus even after the delay was passed to help secure additional resources so we can use the extra time to help consumers make the switch.”

The stimulus package included $90 million for DTV education, of which the FCC was able to get $65 million from the NTIA, which controls those purse strings.

“The same kind of consumer-focused commitment is now being brought to bear on broadband and building the public-private partnerships we need to get this infrastructure out to every American,” Copps said. “The commitment to develop an effective national broadband plan is more than remarkable—it is historic.”

NAB President David Rehr was looking at the bright side of a date move that required some changes in plans, and messaging, for NAB. He told B&C that by focusing on the date move out of the gate, then giving a shout-out to a local TV station in his first press conference, Obama was emphasizing the importance of local broadcasting to the country. “I would give him an A,” Rehr said, also praising the appointment of Julius Genachowski as FCC chair and the current, more collegial atmosphere at the commission.

His opposite number at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Kyle McSlarrow, likes what he sees so far. He added his approval of FCC openness, a big change from the cable-bashing many observers felt his industry suffered at the hands of the previous FCC regime.

Fast Out of the Gate

“On the one hand, I think it is unfair to grade anyone on telecommunications after 100 days, but there has actually been a lot of activity,” McSlarrow said. “The fact that they came out of the gate so quickly on the digital transition, and so quickly on making broadband a priority and making sure telecom was part of the national infrastructure, I think bodes well for the rest of the term, so I give him high marks.”

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the strongest voices for regulating online marketing, gave the new president above-average marks but sees room for improvement. He credited Copps as well for a more responsive and analytical commission. He particularly likes the appointment by FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz of consumer champion David Vladeck as director of the Bureau of Consumer Affairs, in essence the nation's chief consumer watchdog.

“There is a new wind blowing through the agencies that regulate ownership and operations of the media industry,” Chester said.

But Chester wants more: “They clearly need to deal more aggressively on the digital divide. They have to push on network neutrality and a plan with real high-speed access at affordable rates. They have to work on broadband competition. They haven't done anything on privacy yet. The first 100 days is a B, but we'll be sending a letter to the principal soon if they don't act aggressively to focus more on media issues.”

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