JESSELL AT LARGE

What To Expect From A Tom Wheeler FCC

First, there will be little or no change in the incentive auction policy. Look for Wheeler to push the auction with all the zeal of the outgoing Genachowski. What's near impossible to divine is where Wheeler will go on two issues that should be of more immediate concern to broadcasters: ownership and retransmission consent.

I was surprised that the president actually took the time to announce personally his pick to succeed FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Wednesday. It’s usually done simply by press release.

Why Tom Wheeler rated the special treatment, I don’t know. Maybe it was all the money Wheeler raised for Obama’s campaigns. Maybe he just likes Wheeler. Or maybe he was indulging in a little show politics.

Some say the real star of the brief ceremony at the White House was Mel Watt, who shared the moment and dais with Wheeler. The president had selected the North Carolina congressman to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

You see, Obama has been taking some heat for not appointing enough minorities and women to key jobs, and Watt is black. His presence may also have been meant to offset the fact that in appointing Wheeler to the FCC, Obama had to pass over two women (FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn) and one minority (also Clyburn).

Obama may have partially assuaged Clyburn’s feelings by appointing her interim chairperson while Wheeler goes through the nomination and Senate confirmation process. Clyburn has been “an incredible asset to the FCC for the last few years,” the president remarked after singling her out at the event.

So, Clyburn does become the first woman FCC chair, if only for a few months.

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Obama may have to do something nice for Rosenworcel, too. She is a protégé of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). In dissing Rosenworcel, Obama dissed Rockefeller, who controls the FCC confirmation process.  

Rosenworcel campaigned hard for the job, at one point amassing the signatures of Rockefeller and 36 others on a letter of support to Obama. Why she thought that was a good idea, I can’t imagine. Clinton made the mistake of turning over the selection of regular FCC commissioners to Hill leaders in the 1990s. Obama wasn’t about to give up a patronage plum like the FCC chairmanship, too. The letter put Obama in the position of having to say no to a bunch of Senate allies.

This is a lot of inside baseball, isn’t it? What you really want to know is how a Wheeler chairmanship would affect the broadcasting business. So, let’s get down to that.

One thing I can say is to expect little or no change in the incentive auction policy. Look for Wheeler to push the auction with all the zeal of the outgoing Genachowski. What emerges from Wheeler’s prolific blogging is a belief that much of the broadcast spectrum is being wasted and that it would be put to better use in wireless broadband.

“When only 10% of households rely exclusively on over-the-air signals [for TV reception] and digital technology can cram most markets’ existing signals into a single license allocation, the question gets asked whether there might be a higher and better use for those airwaves,” Wheeler asks rhetorically in a 2009 blog.

So, when broadcasters think of Wheeler and spectrum, they should think status quo.

What’s near impossible to divine is where Wheeler will go on two issues that should be of more immediate concern to broadcasters: ownership and retransmission consent.

As the news this week that Allbritton is selling WJLA Washington and six other ABC affiliates attests, the consolidation of the broadcasting is accelerating once again. I expect to see more deals involving stations in the top 25 markets in the year ahead — real action with more established players like Allbritton calling it quits.

The FCC could slow down this consolidation if the chairman decides that it would be a good idea, and there will be pressure from liberal groups on Wheeler to do so. Already pending at the FCC is a proposal to ban the certain duopolies that consolidators like Sinclair and Nexstar have been building their businesses on. Of course, Clyburn could deal with that issue before Wheeler takes over.

I don’t believe broadcasters appreciate enough that Genachowski steadfastly avoided meddling in retransmission consent, despite considerable pressure from satellite and cable interests to do so. Genachowski was comfortable that the marketplace was working just fine in retrans negotiations.

Wheeler is the veteran of the broadcasting-cable wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s when he worked at NCTA, the last five years as its president. No doubt, part of him still thinks like a cable guy and I’m sure he still has many friends in cable. So, he may be less resistant to cable execs and lobbyists kvetching over rising retrans fees. But let’s hope not.

As I wrote here in March, Wheeler is not the ideal chairman from the broadcasters’ perspective (there will never be another Jim Quello). But he’ll do. He is a sharp, pragmatic guy who is widely respected in the small world of communications policymaking. And he has had a long and distinguished career running businesses, investing in businesses and representing businesses in Washington. In other words, he is pro-business.

If he were nominated by the a Republican president, liberal groups would be howling in protest (“My god, he’s been a lobbyist for not one, but two industries regulated by the FCC”) and trying desperately to derail his confirmation.

At the briefing, Obama made a joke of Wheeler’s close ties to those industries, noting that he is a member of both the cable and wireless halls of fame. “[H]e’s like the Jim Brown of telecom.” So much for liberal outrage.

If Obama disappointed advocates for women and minorities by tapping Wheeler, maybe he can score points with the sexagenarian lobby.

According to my research, with the exception of two other interim chairmen (Robert E. Lee and Quello), Wheeler  will be the oldest person to be appointed to the post in the history of the agency. At 67, he will be a shade older than the first and oldest FCC chairman, Eugene Sykes, and twice the age of the youngest, E. William Henry, who was appointed by President Kennedy in 1963.

Say what you will about Obama, you can’t accuse him of being ageist.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (6)

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Christina Perez says:

May 3, 2013 at 11:53 am

Look for a deluge of mainstream media news stories about “Tom Wheeler and The campaign to kill free TV.” With more and more young people cutting the cable, relying on internet streaming AND free over the air high definition TV to satisty their viewing needs. resistance is mounting to the notion that over the air full service broadcast television is expendable. Indeed, I would not be surprised if members of Congress demand a pledge from Wheeler that he will not work to dismantle full service broadcast TV in exchange for their approval of his nomination. If he does not make such a pledge, Congress should vote down this appointment.

Ellen Samrock says:

May 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm

In giving Mignon Clyburn the job of interim chairman, Obama is basically throwing a bone to women and minorities. Now that he is in his second term and no longer campaigning, there is no real need for Obama to appease any special interest group–and he won’t. I think with Ms. Rosenworcel’s “fairness to all stakeholders” policy he saw weakness. Wheeler won’t be interested in fairness but in carrying out his old buddy’s wishes which is to bulldoze broadcast TV and make way for a broadband-only (or possibly a broadband/MVPD-only) world. The only sticking point, and its a clever one, is getting the nomination past Sen. Rockefeller, who has openly endorsed Rosenworcel, and his committee. This could derail the appointment. Plus, many representatives on Capitol Hill have shown great concern for the future of OTA TV, including LPTV and translators, and I’m sure we’ll see some kind of legislation introduced that will offer more protection for the service. 2014 will be an interesting year (for that matter so will the latter half on ’13).

ABELARDO BLANCO says:

May 3, 2013 at 4:14 pm

What doe we (broadcasters) expect from a Wheeler FCC? The shaft–just like we got for his predecessor’s FCC.

ABELARDO BLANCO says:

May 3, 2013 at 4:16 pm

What do broadcasters expect from a Tom Wheeler FCC? The shaft–just like we got from his predecessor’s FCC.

Ellen Samrock says:

May 3, 2013 at 6:02 pm

And as far as retransmission consent is concerned, we know Tom Wheeler will do the right thing……for cable.

Gregg Palermo says:

May 3, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Elections have consequences. If you liked Obama, you’ll have to like Wheeler.


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