Committee grills FCC nominee

Panel praises Genachowski at hearing

The Senate Commerce Committee put President Obama’s nominee to head the FCC, Julius Genachowski, on notice in his confirmation hearing Tuesday that it plans to keep an eagle eye on the agency after what Sen. Jay Rockefeller described as years of policymaking that “shortchanged consumers and the public interest.”

The 90-minute hearing was mostly a lovefest for Genachowski, a close friend of Obama’s and a former FCC staffer. He received high praise from Republicans and Democrats on the panel, making his confirmation appear all but assured.

In his opening remarks, Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said previous FCC regimes had “focused on making sure that the policies they advocate serve the needs of the companies they regulate and their bottom lines.”

Other senators were critical of what they described as a high level of “secrecy” in the agency’s rulemaking process during the chairmanship of Kevin Martin, a George W. Bush appointee.

Rockefeller, who chairs the committee that oversees telecom issues for the Senate, said he would keep a close eye on the influence of special interests in the agency’s decisionmaking.

“Let me be very clear about the challenge before you,” Rockefeller told Genachowski. “Fix this agency, or we will fix it for you.  Prove to us that the FCC is not battered beyond repair.”

Genachowski’s comments were generally short on specifics, but he was pinned down as being against some legislators’ efforts to push the FCC to reimpose the “fairness doctrine” on broadcasters.

The doctrine once required broadcasters to seek out opposing viewpoints on issues of public importance but was scrapped by the FCC in 1987 as unconstitutional. Genachowski said he strongly believes in the First Amendment and doesn’t think the FCC should be involved in censorship based on political speech and opinion.

Genachowski was pressed on the issue by ranking Senate Commerce Committee Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

He sent a mixed message on the question of indecency — an issue on which the biz is looking for a respite from the aggressive enforcement approach taken by Martin’s FCC. He said he would enforce indecency laws, citing the recent Supreme Court decision regarding “fleeting” expletives, but he also touted other options for helping parents screen out potentially objectionable content.

“I believe in the power of technology to help drive solutions here,” he said when asked about the commission’s need to revisit the V-chip program-blocking device.

In his remarks Genachowski emphasized his mix of public-policy experience and private-sector know-how. After leaving the FCC in the late 1990s, he worked in business development for Barry Diller’s USA Networks and InterActiveCorp. More recently, he helped launch two media-centric investment firms, Rock Creek Ventures and LaunchBox Digital.

“I learned the power of pragmatism and the danger of dogma” through his work in the business realm, Genachowski said.

Also on Tuesday, Republican FCC commissioner Robert McDowell got his renomination vetting in the committee. He was asked about the fairness doctrine but said he did not have any concerns that the commission would reimpose it under Genachowski.

McDowell has spoken out strongly against the doctrine, as well as other proposed policies he thought could impact broadcasters’ speech or business. He reiterated his concern that the government not add any unnecessary regulatory complications to a business struggling to find its footing in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

(John Eggerton writes for Daily Variety sister publication Broadcasting & Cable.)