The increasingly possible return of the formidable Michigan Democrat as chairman of the House Commerce Committee might actually do broadcasters some good in Washington.
TV broadcasters may worry that a Democratic takeover of the House might not bode well for their industry.
But they should take another look. The return of the formidable Michigan Democrat John Dingell as chairman of the House Commerce Committee might actually be a welcome change.
Broadcast lobbyists agree that with “Big John” at the Commerce Committee helm, you’ll see a far greater understanding and respect for free, over-the-air broadcasting.
Dingell’s return to power (he chaired Commerce for 14 years in the 1980s and early 1990s) means that TV broadcasters should have a more sympathetic ear when making their case for multicast must carry and maintaining their retransmission consent rights.
“Dingell has long appreciated the contributions that broadcasters make to their communities across the country. That’s where he starts from on any issue that gets brought up,” says former Dingell aide David Leach.
Luckily for broadcasters, Leach is among the ex-Dingell staffers who will be representing their interests on Capitol Hill. His clients include MSTV, Clear Channel Communications, News Corp., and Tribune Co.
John Orlando, a senior vice president in CBS’s Washington office and former NAB lobbyist, and Andy Levin, Clear Channel’s top man in Washington, also worked for the Michigan Democrat.
Their stock goes up if the election goes the Democrat’s way on Nov. 7.
But the industry’s real strength lies with the solid and decades-long relationship local Michigan broadcasters have with Dingell. He’s worked with them on many issues and his door is always open to them.
Broadcasters haven’t fared particularly well under the Republicans this past year. The industry couldn’t stop passage of broadcast indecency legislation nor has it been able to eliminate or weaken some of the anti-broadcasting provisions in a Senate telecom bill.
The current Commerce Committee chairman, Joe Barton (R-Texas), is no fan of multi-cast must carry. He helped kill a planned must-carry proceeding at the FCC earlier this year and he is a barrier to the FCC taking up that cause again. Cable and telcos seemed to have a stronger connection with Barton than broadcasting.
Broadcasters should also keep in mind that cable operators have their own Dingell alumni on the payroll.
That group includes: Tom Ryan, of Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon, which lists Comcast and NCTA as clients, and Peter Filon, who is now Comcast’s senior director of federal government affairs.
Time Warner has relied on Lent, Scrivner & Roth in the past. The firm is home to Alan J. Roth, yet another long-time Dingell staffer.
From the broadcasters’ perspective, Dingell isn’t perfect. It’s also no secret that Dingell is a strong believer in public interest obligations for broadcasters. He’s not likely to support any major deregulatory move without some type of enhanced public interest obligations as part of the deal. During the 1980s, he resisted the agressive deregulatory agenda of the Fowler and Patrick FCCs.
However, Leach says, Dingell is a “realist and recognizes that the media landscape has changed enormously in the last 20 years.”
The biggest unknown is where Dingell will come down on media ownership. Liberal Democrats vehemently oppose any loosening of the broadcast ownership restrictions. Dingell would be hard-pressed to ignore that opposition.
It’s also unclear how well he will get along with the new regime at the NAB headed by David Rehr. Dingell had a good relationship with Rehr’s predecessor, Eddie Fritts. Although a Republican, Fritts steered a nonpartisan course for himself and NAB. Dingell was among the Capitol Hill luminaries from both sides of the aisle who showed up for Fritts’s going-away party early this year.
But Dingell might not warm up to Rehr. In his previous job as head of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, Rehr backed the aggressively partisan Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay who antagonized many Democrats. (Delay resigned his seat in June after being indicted on campaign finance law violations.)
Dingell’s return is certainly not good news for the FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. Dingell believes in oversight, accountability and in exercising his authority over the commission.
As long as Dingell wields the Commerce Committee gavel, Martin and his fellow commissioners better get used to the idea of making frequent Hill appearances and responding to a barrage of Hill correspondence.
Says Andy Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project: “He’ll be very aggressive about making sure the FCC does things, as he regards, in the right way.”
If you have any comments about this story, contact Kim McAvoy at [email protected].