"A home run" is how one attendee rated new FCC Chair Tom Wheeler's turn on the dais at the 27th annual Federal Communications Bar Association Chairman's Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel Thursday night (Dec. 5), adding:"I don't know how he could have done any better.
The over/under going into the speech was that it might be over on the serious and under on the funny. It wasn't. The chairman historically roasts the industry with a series of one liners, often with visual aids, and Wheeler did not disappoint.
He riffed on his age--he is a grandfather--the fact that he is not a lawyer, and his lobbying background as head of both the wireless and cable trade associations. In fact, he said, he is the first chairman to have lobbied most of his staff. "And do you know why I hired them? Because they never gave me what I wanted."When people ask why he has such a fascination with the Civil War, Wheeler said he didn't know how to respond, adding: "Maybe you just had to be there."
The dinner was certainly a "had to be there" event for Washington lawyers and lobbyists getting a read on the new chairman.
Wheeler provided those lawyers with some tips on how to lobby him, saying he was in a unique position given that he had once sat on their side of the table.
Those tips mostly came down to praising his books, quoting from his books, citing Ohio State football victories instead of cases like Pacifica, using Civil War metaphors, and "oohing and aahing" over his grandchildren, preferably asking to see pictures without prompting. In fact, the video screens that ringed the room were often graced with shots of his three grandchildren, and attendees were urged to ooh and aah liberally. They did once they got the idea.
"I'm not saying oohing and aahing over the grandchildren will get you the spectrum policy you want," he advised. "But it couldn't hurt." It may have been a running joke, but it was clear he was a pround grandpapa.
Wheeler said quoting from his book was good, but bringing in a box of books to autograph was "too much,” even for his ego.
He was an equal opportunity skewerer, taking shots at the cable, and wireless and broadcasting industries.
The biggest cable groaner was probably when he talked about his nomination being held up by Sen. Ted Cruz. "People have asked me: 'What was it like to be at the mercy of one individual's whims. To effectively be taken hostage and your life put on hold for what seems like an eternity.... Think cable service call."
"Where is the NCTA table," wheeler asked, adding "how are the programmers and cable operators getting along." NCTA has had to keep its powder pretty dry on carriage and program cost issues, given it has members on both sides of those issues.
Following the audible groans from the cable section of the room, Wheeler added. "I guess I should apologize....But I won't."
Saying he was actually young once, Wheeler played a C-SPAN clip from a Women in Cable salute to him while he was head of NCTA, showing a young, Mark Spitz-like Wheeler (the screen briefly flashed a “Ron Burgandy” photo) being sung to by a trio of pom-pom waving, baton twirling "Tom-ettes" singing "Tommy, Tommy you're so fine." He indicated it had taken "years of therapy" to get over that "memorable" evening.
The phone companies ears were Thursday night as well.
"The New York Times reported last month that the CIA was paying AT&T $10 million a year for phone data," said Wheeler. "I know that AT&T is making shared data plans mandatory, but come on."
Wheeler also alluded to the issue of whether there should be bidding conditions that promote the participation of T-Mobile and Sprint in the incentive auctions and potentially limit spectrum aggregation by AT&T and Sprint. "We have a good supply of wine here tonight, but it's a limited supply," he advised. "So, AT&T and Verizon, I'm going to have to ask you to limit yourselves. T-Mobile and Sprint. Go at it guys." Then added: "Would you show up and buy something."
It was a roomful of lawyers, so, of course, there were lawyer jokes.
Wheeler said he had always been jealous of those who could use their legal sheepskin as air cover. Describing the job by explaining "I'm a lawyer' is so much better than describing it by what you really do."
Wheeler pointed out that upon arrival he had christened the FCC the Federal Optimism Agency and that he would extend that sunny, positive attitude to his dealings with all the FCC stakeholders "until some SOB sues us in some BS lawsuit."
Then there was the one about White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Tom Power, who had worked during the shutdown as a bartender. Wheeler said Powers had to clear it with ethics and the only stipulation was he could not take tips from telecom lawyers. "That was easy," said Wheeler.
Broadcasters took a licking over suggestions they might have to move to a cable-only model if over-the-top provides don't have to pay for their content. "Aereo has been in the news a lot," he said. "It has rankled broadcasters who are now threatening to stop broadcasting their content and move to cable. And here I thought we had to pay them to do that."
Even former chairmen (and chairwomen) were fair game.
In fact, in a nod to acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, when Wheeler was introduced at the beginning of the night, it was instead Clyburn who stepped to the podium to cheers and lengthy applause. "The Mayor of Toronto and Tom Wheeler walked into a bar," deadpanned Clyburn. "I'm not making a joke, I'm just telling you where Tom was," she said.
"Jokes about being the first female chair are even funnier when Tom tells them," she added.
Wheeler took a gentle shot at former chairman Julius Genachowski, who joined a think tank after exiting the commission, a fairly common move. "At my age, many people are saying this will be my last gig. Are you crazy? I'm thatclose to being a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute."
Then it was Reed Hundt's turn. "He's leading the charge to get the Redskins to change their name. I'm sure that Reed and Skins owner Dan Snyder will be able to work something out. Both men are so well known for their humility and flexibility."
Wheeler said he sat down in the cafeteria with a couple of staffers and drew blank stares when he introduced himself as Tom Wheeler, and the same when he said he was the new chairman. Turns out they were from across the street at Immigration and Customs and just came over for the food. "Think about what I just said for a second. There are actually people who come to the Portals [FCC headquarters] for the food. That's like going to [NCTA President and former FCC Chairman] Michael Powell for hair care tips."
Wheeler ended on a serious note, talking about the death of Nelson Mandela. "We can all pray that someday we could have the principles, the vision, the courage of Nelson Mandela."
The dinner hosted a record 1,600 people and raised over $44,000 for FCBA scholarships and other programs, according to FCBA President Joe Di Scipio.