Q&A: Genachowski's Media Mission


New Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski's spacious corner office on the eighth floor of agency headquarters in Washington remains a work in progress, with empty bookshelves behind his desk and walls not yet filled with mementos or evidence of past accolades. But there is something of a metaphor for the size of the bureaucracy Genachowski inherits, and of the tasks ahead of him, in the large dead-tree dictionary that sits open next to his office door. “It doesn't have the word 'broadband' in it, or even the word 'Internet,'” he said. “Maybe we will find a 'green' way to be able to look up words.”

Trim, well-dressed, bright-eyed and with a firm-bordering-on-“say uncle” handshake, Genachowski seems a man secure in his own skin and convictions. The industries he regulates will know where he's coming from, though they may not always like where he is going.

Last week, Genachowski shared his vision of the media landscape, cable and broadcast regulation, the challenge of broadband and more with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton. While his answers were as controlled and careful as the Harvard-educated lawyer he is, they also revealed something of the man and his mission.

MCN: Onetime FCC chairman Newton Minow famously called TV a “vast wasteland.” Updating TV to “video platform,” how would you characterize the landscape?

Julius Genachowski: I would not attempt to one-up Chairman Minow. We have gone from a world, when Newton Minow was chairman, of just a few broadcast channels going into every home to, for homes that get cable and satellite, many, many more channels. There is certainly more variety. There has been an incredible mushrooming of creativity on broadcast television since the 1960s. And there have been lots of powerful examples since the '60s of great news, great documentaries and great entertainment on TV.

It is also true that parents are very frustrated when they turn on the TV, whether it's a broadcast-only home or whether they are cable or satellite subscribers. They are frustrated because they see things they don't think are appropriate for their kids, and they are frustrated by their [lack of] ability to do something about it. There is also frustration and confusion about all the different media platforms kids deal with today, with dramatic changes from when Newton Minow was chairman and raising a whole host of new issues.

MCN: Like what?

JG: Parents today have hundreds of TV channels in the home, they have a computer in the kitchen, they have a video console in the basement and a mobile phone in their kids' pockets. Each of those devices represents real opportunity for their kids and for the economic growth of the country, and new sources for news, information and entertainment. But they also present a whole host of new issues.

MCN: What should or can the FCC do to help them navigate this landscape?

JG: The first step is to look at it seriously and be clear about what the objectives are, and to take a look at what is actually going on in the marketplace. I don't think the objectives have changed since the Children's Television Act was enacted in the 1990s. And though I haven't thought about it before, I expect the objectives haven't changed since Newton Minow was chairman [in the early 1960s] in this area relating to kids. And those are promoting the education and health of our kids, of protecting kids, and empowering parents.

As you know, we announced last week that the FCC will be doing an inquiry into children and the digital-media landscape. And we are already doing an inquiry required by the Senate into parental-empowerment tools. So the first step is to understand what is going on. The second step is for the FCC to ask what it can do to get better information in the market.

One of the steps we will be taking is revamping the FCC Web site with respect to the Children's Television Act information that is public, that broadcasters supply, and that is already on the FCC Web site if you look hard enough. We are going to turn that information into something that is user-friendly and parent-friendly.

MCN: You signaled that the FCC would ban interactive ads in kids' shows, absent a parental opt-in. Why is that necessary?

JG: The commission looked at this several years ago and tentatively concluded that the risk of interactive advertising in digital programming for kids in the absence of parental consent was too high. This is the ability of a kid watching digital TV and clicking through to a commercial sales site or program. If parents want their kid to have that feature, that is fine. But if parents are concerned, kids won't be able to easily poke around through children's television programming into commercial sites. From what I have seen, that tentative conclusion seems correct. I want the FCC to finish the process and analyze the record; based on what I know now, I think the outcome will be to codify that tentative conclusion.

MCN: Let's talk about broadband for a moment. Is it broadband plan first and everything else second, or do you have to juggle all these balls at once?

JG: The commission has an obligation to juggle all the balls. I have tried in my public remarks to staff and in meetings to outline the strategic priorities: promoting universal broadband — essential; promoting job creation, economic growth, innovation and investment — essential; protecting and empowering consumers, public safety, promoting a vibrant media landscape and revitalizing and retooling the FCC. This is a manageable set of strategic priorities that the commission can tackle and will tackle. We have to be able to do more than one thing at once.

MCN: Do you have any concerns in the area of access to, or carriage of, cable programming?

JG: As you know, some complaints and petitions have been filed, and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on specific ones or prejudge them. But in thinking about the areas, I will be focused on competition and consumer choice. I don't think there is any dispute that competition and consumer choice will drive innovation and, ultimately, service to consumers. That is the frame in which the commission will be looking at specific disputes. There are statutory issues that we will have to wrestle with as part of that, but the core purposes underlying the original statutory provisions are those principles, competition and consumer choice.

MCN: [FCC broadband czar] Blair Levin said recently that the comments on the broadband plan's notice of inquiry were aspirational, but he was looking more for action plans. Was that your sense of it?

JG: We are a country in need of a national broadband strategy 10 years ago. But we are where we are. It is a terrific thing for the country that the president and Congress instructed the FCC to develop a broadband strategy.

There is a very wide interest and support for the country pushing forward on broadband. This is our generation's major infrastructure challenge. It's what we need to get right to have an enduring engine for economic growth, job creation and innovation in this country.

Why do I say all this? It is very important for the process and participation to “meet the moment.” We need to make sure that everyone who has data and ideas that can help the country meet this real challenge is participating in the process and taking it seriously. I am happy to send the message that we want the entire community of people who have an interest here to take it very seriously because it deserves to be taken that way.

MCN: Do you see the broadband report hard date being moved to June 12, 2010, or can you commit to Feb. 17?

JG: We are going to hit our target.