NAB 2017: O'Rielly Says Pai Could Herald FCC Golden Age for Broadcasters

Commissioner suggests there is life yet in an independent, deregulatory commission
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FCC chairman Ajit Pai could be the harbinger of a "regulatory golden age" for broadcasters, at least according to his fellow deregulatory Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly.

O'Rielly was speaking before a panel at NAB 2017 entitled "FCC: You're Fired."

O'Rielly suggested the FCC was born of knee-jerk policymaking—the reaction to communications failures during a major tragedy, the sinking of the Titanic—which spurred the government to claim the spectrum and "force" broadcasters, in this case radio, to get licenses.

As to whether it should go the way of the "dodo bird," he did not say but did signaled that the Obama Administration had "eviscerated" its independence—a likely reference to the President's public prod to reclassify internet access as a Title II common carrier service in the Open Internet order. 

Full Coverage of NAB 2017

O'Rielly provided plenty of ammunition for at least a major overhaul of the commission, talking about some on Capitol Hill leading the charge to "question the modern Commission's ability to follow the law, its desire to inject social policy outcomes where none were requested, its ability to recognize the costs and benefits of the burdens it imposed, its willingness to extract even more universal service collections from consumers and spend such funds," and more. 

That charge was led by Republicans, and O'Rielly is a former Republican Hill staffer.

Since communications policy has to be done somewhere, an argument for it being at the FCC was its independence, an effort to insulate it from politics. To the degree that independence no longer exists, he said, he can see "great interest" in revisiting the issue (of its continued existence). 

But the light at the end of the tunnel, he suggested, was the glow of that potential golden age under chairman Pai, who he said brings with him a love of broadcasting and small business. He said any talk about eliminating the FCC needs to include what good it can do under that new leadership.

He points out that the commission is poised to reduce regs for broadcasters—it has just restored the UHF discount, which lets some broadcasters get bigger, and Pai has signaled the cross-ownership rules are outdated, the 39% national ownership cap should be raised to let broadcasters grow as the FCC has let cable operators grow, and broadcasters are hopeful he could also loosen small-market duopoly rules. 

"In a methodical and thoughtful way, the Commission is open to reviewing every burden imposed on broadcasters to determine if each regulation is still needed in the 21st Century," said O'Rielly.

That would be fine with O'Rielly. "Outdated rules like the cross-ownership bans, the duopoly rule, the voices test, and radio submarket caps need to be updated or discarded. It is no longer acceptable to ignore the need for these changes just because the legal terrain is difficult," he said, looking to add some of his own burnish to a deregulatory golden age.

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