Help wanted: Regulators - Broadcasting & Cable

Help wanted: Regulators

FCC may have openings for four commissioners
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A New Year is upon us (or a new millennium if you're one of those kooks who believe the 21st century really starts this Jan. 1). And if a turn of the calendar gets you thinking about a new job, let me suggest one: FCC commissioner. The pay is OK ($120,000), you hire a staff to do the heavy lifting, and you get to go to a lot of conventions in swell places like Vegas, San Francisco and New Orleans where you are treated like a big shot by the host association.

As our cover story makes clear, Michael Powell will likely assume the chairmanship next month. Powell has everything going for him, including the endorsement of this magazine (see the editorial on page 82). All he has to do is say the word. But as a sidebar to the story notes, there may also be as many as four vacancies on the five-person commission next year.

The current chairman, Bill Kennard, will quit around Inauguration Day rather than be reduced to a mere commissioner. Susan Ness' valiant campaign to hang on to her seat will fail. Harold Furchtgott-Roth will probably be shown the door, too, despite a voting record no Republican could question. (He's just a bit too quirky.) And Gloria Tristani, whose politics are too far left, is expected to cut her term short and return to New Mexico, even though she appeared to have fun for the first time in her video at the chairman's dinner last week (see B & C Eye, page 4).

To get one of the jobs, you don't need to know much about the industries you'll be regulating. As Furchtgott-Roth proved, you don't even need a TV set. It's kind of a learn-as-you-go deal. What you do need, of course, is the right kind of friends in the incoming Bush administration. These jobs are going to people who helped get Bush elected, friends of those who did and relatives of Katherine Harris. Others need not apply.

One friend of the Bush administration past and present who could really help is former FCC Chairman Dick Wiley. He has quietly suffered through eight years of a Democrat-controlled FCC and now has the ear of the Bush camp on telcom matters. He undoubtedly will be making some recommendations.

But even if you're an FOG (Friend of George) and persuade the new administration's chief of patronage to put you up for an FCC seat, you still have to run a gauntlet between the Old Executive Office Building and that coveted office on the eighth floor of the Portals.

You have to say the right things to the telcom powers- that-be on Capitol Hill, namely Sen. John McCain and Rep. Billy Tauzin. Then, you must expunge anything from your public or private record that would suggest hostility toward any of the major telecommunications industries. The lobbies can't make a commissioner, but they can break you if they try hard enough.

And this year, you'll also have to meet the approval of the incoming chairman. Because of his close association with the Bush administration and McCain and Tauzin, Powell should have a lot of say over who his agency colleagues will be.

By the way, being in on the appointments of three or four commissioners will give Powell unusual, if not unprecedented, power. Once his team is in place, he'll be able to move quickly on his agenda, whatever it may be. When he calls for a vote, he'll have at least two that are beholden to him.

It's a rare opportunity for the Republicans. But they could screw it up as they did during the previous Bush administration. Then Al Sikes spent much of his energy battling his two fellow Republicans, Andy Barrett and Sherrie Marshall. The latter almost beat out Sikes for the chairmanship and spent much of her time at the commission trying to demonstrate that she should have.

Clinton's first FCC chairman, Reed Hundt, was also dealt a bad hand. He was repeatedly frustrated by his fellow Democrats. Jim Quello opposed many of his initiatives, while Ness proved less deferential and pliable than he had expected.

So, if you've always had a hankering to serve your country and don't mind working in a building that's miles from a decent expense-account restaurant, the FCC might be just the thing. I wish you luck.

Jessell may be reached at jessell@cahners.com or 212-337-6964.

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