Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) says he does not see the FCC weighing in on political speech, that Congress should be careful about trying to legislate a la carte, and there are rumors the commission's 2014 incentive auction deadline could slide to 2015.
Those observations from the chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee came in an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators series.
Asked about the state of the FCC incentive auctions, Pryor said he would be "totally fine" with holding those auctions in 2014, but has heard "rumors" it could slide into 2015 and "guessed" it might just make that slide.
Broadcasters have been arguing that the FCC should not hold itself to 2014, but work on getting the auction "done right rather than right away." The FCC's incentive auction point people have suggested it can get it right and meet that 2014 deadline, though that deadline is not set in stone.
Republican concerns that the FCC might try an "end-run" around the DISCLOSE Act by using its authority over on-air disclosures and political ad identification has led to warnings from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about holding up chair nominee Tom Wheeler's confirmation.
Pryor said he hoped the Senate Commerce Committee would move the nominations of Tom Wheeler as FCC chair -- and now Michael O'Rielly as Republican nominee to succeed Robert McDowell -- quickly through the process. If getting Wheeler in meant not pairing the vote in the full Senate, Pryor was all for that. Republicans likely won't be.
The C-SPAN interview was conducted before O'Rielly was officially announced by the White House late Thursday, so one of the hurdles to confirmation Pryor suggested -- the lack of a name from the White House -- has been cleared and it will be easier to pair the nominations for a floor vote after O'Rielly's nomination hearing, which will likely now come in early to mid-September. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chair of the Commerce Committee has said he wanted to get moving on the nominations. Wheeler has already been approved by the committee. Pryor said that it would be fine if they can be paired expeditiously, but if not he would like to see Wheeler installed as soon as possible.
But another hurdle is the threatened delay of the Wheeler nomination by Sen. Cruz, who does not want the FCC requiring enhanced on-air disclosures of the funders of political ads, something the FCC has been pressed by some Democrats to undertake in the wake of the failure of the DISCLOSE Act.
Pryor said he did not think that that would ultimately be an issue.
What would be an issue in his subcommittee, Pryor said, was whether there would be a clean reauthorization of STELA, the law that allows satellite and cable operators to import distant signals. The law must be reauthorized by the end of next year or it sunsets (every five years). Pryor said he is hearing from subcommittee members that they would like a clean reauthorization. But he also pointed out that the issue's jurisdiction was shared by the Judiciary Committee, and then there were the two comparable committees in the House, so he recognizes it will be a "four-step" process.
Pryor was asked to weigh in on Sen. John McCain's a la carte bill, which would unbundle channels delivered by operators that also own an interest in those channels. Pryor said he knew that question was coming, but pointed out McCain has introduced a la carte bills virtually annually since Pryor has been in the Senate (since 2002). "He feels passionately about it and I think we ought to look at it," he said. "The whole idea of a la carte," which he said people intuitively like, "is that when I buy a cable package from Comcast of Time Warner or AT&T, or whoever it may be, I should be able to pick the channels I want."
But that market is changing already, says Pryor, thanks to over-the-top video. "Now, if I want to watch a show on NBC, there are websites where I can download that as well," he said. He added distribution is morphing so much and continues to change.
"Will a l a carte be something that is that desirable to people, say, five years from now because things are changing more rapidly?" he asked.
Asked by interviewer Gautham Naugesh of CQ Roll whether Congress needed to be mindful of trying to legislate a la carte or in other areas of the fast-moving communications sector, he said yes. "I don't know if there will be a need for a la carte in five years, but it is possible that if Congress tries to legislate too much and too specifically in these areas, then all of a sudden we stifle innovation and prevent the investment we need to keep that cutting edge on the U.S. economy." He said that didn't mean some fixes might not be needed "here and there."