Midterm will change showbiz-D.C. dynamic

GOP wave will set up new set of power players

Hollywood’s relationship with Washington is in for a big change.

With the Republicans’ newly won control over the House of Representatives and narrowed gap in the Senate, the industry’s D.C. force faces a new set of players while showbiz’s deep pool of activists now must navigate a new landscape for pushing forward their causes.

One of the few bright spots for showbiz Democrats was in California, where Sen. Barbara Boxer won re-election and Jerry Brown will return to the statehouse as governor, almost 30 years after he left that office. Both of those races drew significant interest from industryites. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many of the industry’s environmental activists cheered the resounding defeat of Proposition 23, which would have rolled back the state’s landmark global warming law. Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), each of whom had raised heavily in the industry, won new terms.

The shift to the right means key Hollywood allies will lose powerful committee chairmanships: Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In one of the bigger upsets of the evening, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) lost his seat altogether. He had been chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, but he had often found himself at odds with the industry as it pushed for strict copyright legislation.

Overall, the election results will impact a host of industry-related issues pending before Congress, including Net neutrality. The FCC is seeking to establish “rules of the road” for the Internet, but a more conservative Congress would likely seek to keep the agency’s power in check.

Also pending is much-debated legislation to mandate that broadcast radio stations pay performers when their music is played over the air. And an emboldened GOP could well turn its attention, as it has in the past, to significantly cutting funding to public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dan Glickman, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former chairman of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said of the returns in general, “It is going to be a changed world, regardless of what happens.”

The returns also could alter the dynamics of the way that the industry gives to candidates — even if it is highly unlikely that showbiz will suddenly become a bastion of Republican money.

Hollywood’s investment in this year’s midterms was substantial, but rather than pull away from Democrats, Hollywood doubled down, showering the party and its candidates with even greater sums than in 2006, when the prospects were much better. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, showbiz donors gave $15.7 million to Democrats this cycle and $5.9 million to Republicans, a 72%-27% split that reflected the industry’s continued leftward tilt.

But things could change in the next cycle, particularly when it comes to giving through the political action committees of studios and media congloms, which have traditionally spread the wealth more evenly.

Among Hollywood’s individual donors, perception is everything. Depending on how President Obama responds to the expected GOP rout, the power shift could leave some major fund-raisers and donors on the sidelines for 2012 or even seeking to support a wildcard candidate like Michael Bloomberg, as speculation mounts that he could stage an independent run. The results also could fuel a challenge to Obama in the primaries from the left, although Russ Feingold, who lost his Senate seat in Wisconsin on Tuesday night, said he has no interest.

Ken Solomon, the CEO of the Tennis Channel and a Southern California finance co-chairman for the Democratic National Committee, predicted that Obama would regain momentum, particularly within the industry, as the GOP’s new power may actually illuminate Obama’s agenda and accomplishments. “I think you will see a groundswell of support for this administration,” he said. “The bloom will be off the rose of the bluster that has been offered as a solution.”

When Michelle Obama appeared at a fund-raiser last week at the home of James Lassiter, he said, “I felt more of a groundswell, even knowing we were heading into a perilous election, in support of the president than I have felt in the past 22 months. That is going to embolden supporters.”

Undoubtedly there will be calls for the White House to improve its messaging operation, and while Solomon sees the need for improvement, “it is a bit of a fool’s errand to believe that spin is the answer.”

“There is not any amount of messaging to make up for the fact that jobs are not coming back quickly enough to make people feel good,” Solomon said.Here’s what showbiz will be looking out for in the months ahead:

MPAA. Republican control changes the equation in the search for a new chief lobbyist for Hollywood studios. After talks broke down with former senator Bob Kerrey last summer, it made more sense for the studios to wait until after the election to see what the makeup of the next Congress would be. It doesn’t mean a Republican will get the top slot, but there will be some pressure to pick someone with strong connections on both sides of the aisle. One name mentioned recently has been retiring Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Ct.), although there are doubts it’s the type of job he wants to pursue come January. Other names thrown out there: Joe Lockhart, former press secretary in the Clinton administration, and well-known Washington attorney Antoinette Cook Bush. The search committee is said to be broadening its prospects beyond elected officials, although there is still no vision for exactly what the job should be. A choice may not emerge until the first quarter of 2011 at the earliest. “I do think it is important that they move fairly quickly on this and that they not wait too long,” Glickman said. “In Washington sometimes you can get to a point of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and the industry is too important that they not get into that category.”

Net neutrality. The issue has divided the entertainment business as an issue of freedom of speech vs. flexibility for innovation, but it’s created a sense of paralysis in Washington. Waxman’s last-ditch, pre-recess effort to find a compromise died, and it’s ever-more unlikely that it will get anywhere in the lame-duck session. Digital rights groups and open-Internet advocates will be putting pressure on the FCC chairman Julius Genachowski to take action with his so-called third way plan in which it would establish its authority to impose rules by reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications service, but the prospective Republican chairs of the Energy and Commerce Committee are opposed and may even seek legislation to curtail its authority. “The FCC does not have the jurisdiction to do it,” Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), told Politico earlier this week. Others said to be interested in the top spot on the committee include Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), and they too are skeptical of net neutrality efforts.

Pay for play. With GOP control of the House, and a slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate, the chances of a Performance Rights Act getting through any time soon are greatly diminished. For nearly two years, the music and broadcast business have been at odds as legislation cleared key House and Senate committees requiring that radio stations pay performers when their music is played over the air. Last summer, it looked as if they would strike some kind of a compromise that would have meant a bill could pass through Congress during the lame-duck session. But those prospects were thrown in doubt after the National Assn. of Broadcasters issued a list of terms last week that artists and record labels saw as a break from the prior agreement. The legislation does have the support of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and other GOP lawmakers from the Los Angeles and Nashville areas, but that support may not be great enough to counter the influence of broadcasters in the next Congress.Piracy. More likely to draw bipartisan support, and perhaps even see the light of day in lame duck, is legislation pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee that would give the government greater tools to shut down the domain names of websites solely devoted to infringing activities. The antipiracy bill, introduced by re-elected committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), was softened a bit after an outcry from the tech community that it could lead to censorship, but it is expected to still have strong support on both sides of the aisle once lawmakers return.

Arts funding. Republicans are running on a mantra of ending out-of-control government spending, and that could well include orgs that many conservatives deem elitist or irrelevant to what government should be funding. The last big GOP wave in 1994 led to a showdown over arts funding, Newt Gingrich leading an effort to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Threats to cut the Corp. for Public Broadcasting were enough to send Big Bird lobbying on Capitol Hill. NPR’s recent dismissal of Juan Williams instigated GOP calls for slashing funding for public radio. What actually happens this time around depends on how intent GOP lawmakers are in taking a hatchet to the federal budget and whether there is enough pushback from moderates and liberals who champion government arts and communications funding.

The money trail. It won’t be too long before the fund-raising fever starts all over again. Republican presidential contenders like Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) and Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) already have a handful of industry contacts to draw upon, setting up a competition for high-profile support that certainly won’t rival that of the Democrats in 2008 but will be significant nonetheless. Conservatives have shown a greater affinity to embrace pop culture — just look at “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” series bowing on TLC later this month — as a way to draw attention and, in many respects, momentum.

Obama, meanwhile, will undoubtedly turn to showbiz as he looks to 2012, but big midterm losses will cast a lot of scrutiny on how he positions himself. More than anything, showbiz likes the sense of backing a winner.If Congress changes hands, says political consultant Donna Bojarsky, “he is going to have to retool and reintroduce himself in a number of ways. There will be a lot more scrutiny of what he chooses to do and how he chooses to do it. …People in this town want him to succeed.”

She certainly does not see the industry changing its political stripes to conform to the GOP wave — even if it refines its approach.

“You have a set of values,” she notes. “It is ideological, not situational.”

The midterms had a number of pop culture curiosities. Republican Sean Duffy, who was a member of “The Real World: Boston” cast, won a congressional seat in Wisconsin, while Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.), former lead singer for the ’70s group Orleans, lost his seat in New York.

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