Richard Nixon deserves some credit for Jonathan Blake's 38-year career as a communications lawyer. Blake, who today heads the technology, media and communications practice at powerhouse Washington firm Covington & Burling, committed to communications law as a young attorney when assigned to defend The Washington Post Co. from fallout of the Watergate scandal.
The company's two Florida TV-station licenses were up for renewal in 1972, and a Nixon White House bent on retribution for the newspaper's coverage of the conspiracy engineered challenges to the permits. Several challenges to Post licenses in Miami and Jacksonville by Nixon cronies were eventually dropped, but only after the company spent more than $1 million defending its operations.
"When I joined the firm in 1964, they had a need in communications, so I did that and other work, too," Blake recalls. "What really cemented me was the Watergate challenges. That was full-time, very important and interesting work. That really made clear that communications was my niche.
"Being a communications lawyer has been a great choice," he adds, "because it's such a dynamic industry and has such interesting people."
Covington & Burling, which was founded in 1919 to help corporate clients navigate increasingly important regulatory, legislative and tax-policy areas, expanded into communications with the advent of broadcast-industry regulation. Longtime clients include top TV-station groups; the CBS affiliates, for 45 years; and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), since 1958.
Public-television clients, including PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Association of Public Television Stations, hired the firm after the Johnson White House increased federal support for public broadcasting.
"Our practice has always been weighted," Blake says, "toward government policy and the structure of the broadcasting industry." That plants him in the middle of two of the most sweeping, and contentious, changes to broadcasting: the increasingly combative affiliate-network relationship, and the switch to digital.
With CBS and NBC affiliates and leading station groups as clients, Blake's team is one of two law offices pressing the FCC to end what many TV-group owners call abusive and illegal practices by the networks. Along with a Raleigh, N.C., firm, Covington & Burling represents the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, which claims the Big Four nets restricted stations' right to preempt network programming, demanded control of DTV channels and interfered with station sales. NASA also wants the FCC to impose restrictions on "repurposing" of programming on network-affiliated cable channels and the "favoritism" nets allegedly show their O&Os. NASA also intervened against the networks' fight to eliminate the 35% cap.
On behalf of public-TV clients, the firm fought for digital cable carriage rights. It helped MSTV obtain a digital allotment for each TV broadcaster, rather than having the channels assigned by comparative hearings or auction. Thus, TV stations will be able to maintain today's analog coverage areas when they go digital.
"Jonathan has a remarkable way of seeing the full picture, where things might go and how issues might be resolved down the road," says Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations and NASA chairman. "He's an invaluable resource."
Although exerting much effort sparring with the nets, Blake has a few digs for the FCC, which he says "walked away from its responsibilities" to aid the DTV transition.
He's glad Congress appears willing to act, perhaps requiring DTV tuners in sets and digital copy-protection standards.
The next fight for broadcasters, he says, will be protecting signals from interference as stations move from ch. 52-69 to the lower channels of the TV core over the next few years. "There are enormous risks of interference. A lot has to be done now to minimize problems later."