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Genachowski Suggests Limited Role for FCC in Aereo Dispute

Exiting chairman says he doesn't 'see a role' for the agency in deciding what amounts to a copyright dispute

LAS VEGAS — FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, making his farewell appearance before the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention here, suggested that the agency had a limited role when it comes to companies like Aereo that stream broadcast signals without paying stations for the feeds.

“The FCC is not a copyright agency, so I don’t see a role there,” Genachowski said at a Q&A session. “I do think enabling people to get more free TV is a good thing. Fostering the economic health of the broadcasting industry through arms length retransmission consent agreements and other commercial deals is also a good thing. More competition is a good thing. And I imagine that is the way that many people look at these issues as they play out.”

Broadcasters are suing Aereo, claiming copyright infringement, but the startup venture has so far been successful in winning court victories in which judges have refused to shut it down. During the 1990s, Genachowski worked at a broadcast venture led by Barry Diller, one of the investors in Aereo. Diller has not been shy about expressing the potential to disrupt the broadcast business.

Genachowski also defended the agency’s drive to hold auctions of broadcast spectrum, even as stations have called for the process to be slowed down. Although he announced last month that he would be departing the agency, Genachowski said that he expects “there to be continuity as the process moves forward.”

“Obviously incentive auctions are a priority of mine, but it is important to know that incentive auctions are an institutional priority,” he told broadcasters at the Q&A with Paul Karpowicz, president of Meredith Corp. Local Media Group.

The FCC’s plan for incentive auctions, authorized by Congress in legislation passed last year, have stirred concerns of stations on a myriad of issues, including fears that it will diminish broadcasting to the gain of broadband providers. Facing a spectrum crunch, the first-of-its-kind auctions will see stations voluntary give up their spectrum, and even shut down, in exchange for sharing in the proceeds from the sale to wireless providers.

Stations fear that the plans for the auction are proceeding too quickly, and that many complex issues remain to be resolved. They include the FCC’s plans to move stations that choose to stay in business, as a way to clear spectrum for wireless use on the UHF band.

Genachowski said that even though he is leaving, the FCC staff in place is well qualified to carry out the plans for the auctions. He did not answer Karpowicz’s question on whether a new comment period should be opened on the auction plan, but noted that there will be additional public workshops.

“I expect there to be real continuity,” he said. “I expect there to be very active ongoing public engagement. …It is very important for the country that this goes well.”

The Q&A session was just under 30 minutes, notable because in past appearances Genachowski has been met with a somewhat tepid reaction from the audience, given a host of issues that have put him at odds with the priorities of broadcasters.

But Genachowski said that the incentive auction plan shouldn’t be treated as a “zero sum game between mobile and broadcasting.”

“I strongly believe that this will help strengthen the broadcasting industry,” he said, noting that stations are well positioned to take advantage of mobile TV and other digital initiatives and create multi-platform businesses.

His successor is likely to grapple with whether to relax the FCC’s ownership rules, including proposals that would enable more media groups to own stations and newspapers in the same market. A rationale is that newspapers need additional support if they are to survive in the digital environment. Genachowski said that a consideration is the “effect the local landscape has on journalism,” and that it was not “something the Commission should ignore.”

Nevertheless, he noted that broadband use is not universal, with 70 percent of the country connected, and a study is currently being conducted on the potential impact of a rule change on ownership among minorities and women.

Genachowski said afterward that there is not a date set yet for his departure, although he had indicated at his announcement last month that it would be a matter of weeks. He had been working in the private sector when Obama, a classmate at Harvard Law School, tapped him for the post, which is the nation’s top communications regulator but also notoriously contentious when it comes to balancing the many different interest groups and trade associations lobbying for their agenda. “Be careful who you go to school with. It turns out they might run for president one day,” Genachowski quipped.

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