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NAB Chief: Next FCC Chair Shouldn’t Have ‘Bias’ Toward Broadband

LAS VEGAS — When Julius Genachowski makes his final appearance as FCC chairman before the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention on Wednesday, more than likely he’ll get the same type of reaction as he has in years past: Lukewarm.

While attention here has moved to a host of issues his successor is likely to face, from the agency’s plan to free up broadcast spectrum for incentive auctions to a rewrite of rules regarding ownership of a newspaper and TV station in the same market, the sentiment has been that Genachowski has favored the broadband business more than broadcasting during his tenure.

In an interview, Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, called for President Obama to give “fair consideration” in selecting someone who “understands the irreplaceable architecture for broadcasting and the demand currently for more broadband. There is a balance there, there is a tension there that needs to be satisfied.”

Asked whether Genachowski understood that balance, Smith said, “He certainly gave lip service to it, but I think his strong bias was to the world of broadband. I always tend to look at what people do and not just at what they say, and we have a lot of pressure on us to surrender our spectrum. But once you surrender your spectrum, you don’t get it back. And you surrender an industry that the American people can count on especially in emergencies.”

Genachowski’s successor, along with the person who fills a vacancy with the coming departure of Commissioner Robert McDowell, is likely to grapple with what to do about the FCC’s indecency rules. Faced with a backlog cases, Genachowski instituted a policy last September to deal with “egregious” cases, which has whittled down the number of complaints. But last week, he opened public comment on making such a policy official, or if there should be some other way to write the rules of the road for broadcasters that can survive First Amendment scrutiny.

Smith said that while he falls on the “real conservative side in all of this, even to the irritation of probably some of [NAB] members,” recognizing the need for parents to have “some confidence that what their children see on TV is appropriate for them to see,” the problem with the current FCC standards is that “they seem to be entirely subjective, and that is difficult to measure.”

Going to an “egregious” policy, he said, raises the question of “what is egregious.” “It is in the eye of the beholder,” he said, citing Justice Potter Stewart’s “know it when I see it” definition. Nevertheless, networks are also “making what people want to see,” and that is edgier content, he said.

What the policy proposal could do is raise he profile at the confirmation hearings for the FCC nominees, perhaps with lawmakers pressuring them to take a hardline on broadcast content.

“I know the pressure exists and they certainly will be asked those questions,” Smith said, quipping, “and just like the whole category of indecency, they will find a way of answering without answering.”

Smith said that of potential successors to Genachowski, “there are some I like more than others, but I don’t want to jeopardize their chances by naming them.” He did say that they “certainly support” the idea of a woman being selected to lead the commission for the first time, but also noted the unusual letter that 37 senators sent to Obama asking that he name FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a former counsel to Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.)

“I have to express admiration for Senator Rockefeller, obviously having participated in many budget vote-a-ramas, he clearly went to the huge effort to spend a day in the week of the Senate buttonholing 37 colleagues and getting them on a letter promoting the notion that the next chairman should be a woman.” The letter specifically named Rosenworcel as who Obama should choose.

She and a fellow FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, spoke on an NAB panel on Tuesday, where they talked of some of the flash points ahead as well as offer praise for stations’ role in warning and informing East Coast residents on Hurricane Sandy, particularly as wireless and mobile services were down. Rosenworcel even made mention of rising cable bills — including her own — as something that she hopes the marketplace responds to but that the commission should be “watching closely.” The idea that rising rates are sending consumers to cut their cable and rely, once again, on over-the-air antennas is music to the ears to many stations. But asked afterward about the senators’ letter, Rosenworcel offered a polite signal wave of her hands that made it apparent she was not about to comment.

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