While Julius Genachowski, President Obama’s pick to be the next FCC chairman, is coming to the commission from the digital media, his roots stretch back to career emeshed in old-fashioned television. “Without question, he’s as experienced in broadcasting as anyone since Jim Quello,” says former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and Genachowski’s one-time boss at the FCC.
Julius Genachowski, President Obama’s pick to be the next FCC chairman, is generally viewed as a high-tech maven based on his years as a top executive at Barry Diller’s Web-heavy IAC/InterActive Corp. and several subsequent years heading his own investment firm for digital media.
But a closer look reveals a career steeped in old-fashioned television. Prior to embracing the new media, Genachowski spent several years deeply involved in the law, policy and management of broadcasting and cable. The old media has even played a bigger than usual part in his life as a husband and father.
“Without question, he’s as experienced in broadcasting as anyone since Jim Quello,” says former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and Genachowski’s one-time boss at the FCC. (Quello was a career broadcaster who ran WJR-AM Detroit before beginning a 23-year run as a commissioner in 1974.)
“It is clear that [Genachowski] has a good working knowledge of the broadcast industry,” says David Donovan of the Association of Maximum Service Television. “He has the perfect blend of regulatory experience but he also fully understands the rigors of the marketplace.”
Genachowski, who is now trying to disengage himself from Rock Creek Ventures, an investment firm with a portfolio of digital media companies, declined repeated phone and e-mail requests to be interviewed for this story.
That the 46-year-old, Great Neck, N.Y., native is set to become the electronic media’s chief regulator has as much to do with who he knows as what he knows. Who he knows is Barack Obama.
Having graduated from Columbia, Genachowski joined Obama at Harvard Law School. There, they became friends and worked together on the Harvard Law Review.
Genachowski was an early supporter and fundraiser for the Obama presidential campaign. It was he who introduced Obama to Hundt and the rest of the old Hundt FCC gang and rallied their support.
What Genachowski knows about TV may have begun in 1994 when he was working as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice David Souter and the court was considering the constitutionality of the FCC’s must-carry rules.
Souter was part of the 5-4 majority that remanded the case to a lower court and again in 1997 when the high court affirmed the rules.
Soon after the 1994 vote, Hundt brought Genachowski into the FCC and set him to work as a special counsel to then-General Counsel Bill Kennard and later as his own chief legal aide.
At the commission, Genachowski worked on some of the most important and contentious broadcast TV proceedings of the time, including the repeal of the financial interest/syndication and the primetime access rules, the expansion of children’s television obligations and the crafting of the digital television rules.
Broadcast lobbyists who worked on those issue say that Genachowski maintained a low profile. Hundt Chief of Staff Blair Levin was then the principal point of contact on the big issues.
When Genachowski left the FCC in 1997, Hundt praised him as “the brains behind our best ideas and the brawn for our heavy lifting.”
From the FCC, Genachowski joined Barry Diller, who was then building what he thought would be the next great broadcasting and cable company, USA Networks Inc.
Central to this ambition was a string of 12 TV stations in top markets that he had purchased from Bud Paxson and Roy Speer. He would dump the stations’ home shopping lineup and operate them as independents with heavy doses of what is now known as hyper-local programming. In the process, he would reinvent local TV.
Borrowing ideas from the innovative CITY-TV in Toronto, USA put its theory of localism to the test at WAMI in Miami. “We really made the city our studio,” says Adam Ware, a top USA executive who now runs ImaginAsian Television, a cable network for Asian Americans.
As general counsel and senior vice president for business development, Genachowski was in the middle of it all. “Julius was an active part of the problem solving and the operation of the company literally from day one,” Ware says.
“We were in trenches together for a long time,” he adds. “Signing on a TV station in Miami is not the easiest thing in the world to do and neither is building a studio and launching eight original shows per day.”
USA rolled out WAMI’s City Vision format to the other stations, but it proved costly and it never really caught on with viewers. When Diller began experiencing financial trouble, he decided to sell the stations to Univision in 2001.
Nonetheless, it was a learning experience for Genachowski, says Barry Baker, another USA executive who is now managing director-operating partner at Boston Ventures.
“I think he’ll understand the plight of broadcasters today,” he says. “I think Julius appreciates the challenges that broadcasters face in a world of so much information and video delivery.
“He certainly felt what it was like to be a UHF among the land of giants.”
Genachowski’s experiences at USA Networks are not limited to broadcasting. Diller’s mini-TV empire also included Studios USA and two popular cable networks, the USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel.
The overall strategy was to help build cable into a competitive platform with broadcast television,” says Ken Solomon, then head of Studios USA. “Julius was a part of that every step of the way.”
“Julius has a full and complete knowledge of the broadcasting and cable businesses,” adds Solomon, now chairman of the Tennis Channel.
Genachowski’s years with Diller also included a brief return to policymaking. In the late 1990s, Diller was named to the so-called Gore Commission, which was to determine the public interest obligations of TV stations in a digital era.
As Diller’s surrogate, Genachowski helped write the “public interest programming and community service certification form” ultimately recommended to the commission, according to Gigi Sohn, president of the advocacy group, Public Knowledge.
That form is similar to the new FCC Form 355 approved by the FCC last year as part of its enhanced TV disclosure requirements, Sohn says.
Both forms ask broadcasters to document their “public interest” programming defined as local programming, public affairs, PSAs as well as programming directed to underserved communities. But the FCC’s form goes a step further, asking about closed captioning and religious broadcasting. (OMB has not yet approved the FCC form 355, so TV stations do not yet have to submit it.)
Genachowski’s connection to the television business is also personal. His first marriage was to TV journalist Martha Raddatz, who is now the senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News. They have a teenage son, Jake.
His current wife is Rachel Goslins, an independent documentary filmmaker who also has a cable TV production background. She worked in post-production on the first season of the A&E’s hit series Dog the Bounty Hunter, in 2004.
“She came recommended to us as a very, very, smart capable producer and that’s how we found her to be,” says Executive Producer David Houts.
Prior to Dog, Goslins, who is a copyright lawyer turned filmmaker, did some production work for the 2003 National Geographic Channel series, World’s Apart.
More recently, she produced and directed a full-length documentary Bama Girl that aired last year on the Independent Film Channel. It looks at the experiences of a black woman at the University of Alabama running for homecoming queen.
Goslins describes the film in an interview with efilmcritic.com: “Sorority girls, catfights, pep rallies, crazed football fans, nefarious all-white secret societies, guys in Confederate uniforms, charismatic underdogs, homecoming queens. What’s not to love?”
Goslins and Genachowski have two young children, Lilah and Aaron.
The children apparently led to Genachowski’s helping launch Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that helps parents manage their children’s exposure to TV and other media.
“He’s a big devoted Dad,” says his friend John Steyer, president of Common Sense Media. “The real focus Julius has had with us is how you empower parents to make better decisions about media and technology for their kids. Julius is very involved in using tools and technology to empower parents.
“He’s all about helping create responsible parents for the digital age.”