Wheeler Takes The Hill

Political-Ad Issue A Hurdle For FCC Chair Pick
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WASHINGTON — Tom Wheeler, former head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s predecessor group, has cleared a significant hurdle on his way to the Federal Communications Commission chairmanship.

He emerged from a nomination hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee last Tuesday (June 18) relatively unscathed — save for a single senator’s threat that the issue of political ad disclosures could potentially derail his nomination.

Unfortunately, a single senator can derail — or at least delay — a nomination, as was the case with the two most recent nominees, Ajit Pai and Jessica Rosenworcel. Both remained commissioners-in-waiting for months, due to a hold placed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

The issue here is whether the FCC has the authority to require advertisers on both broadcast and cable TV to disclose not only the political action committees and other groups that pay for ads, but also the underlying funders. The DISCLOSE Act would have required such enhanced disclosure, but failed on more than one occasion to make it through the divided Congress.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other Republicans on the committee warned the FCC last April not to wade into what they called one of the most partisan issues in recent Congresses, which is saying something.

Last week, Wheeler said he would study the issue and recognized the “tension” in the committee over it.

But Cruz said he wanted a written answer, and threatened that Wheeler’s response to the question could affect his chances of confirmation. Cruz’s communications director did not return a call by press time on whether that was meant to be a veto threat.

Most of the hearing was devoted to Wheeler answering a host of questions, sidestepping others, and expressing some frustration that, since he did not yet have access to non-public FCC data, there were others he could not answer.

Wheeler generally professed his support for competition as a basic American value, but said he is for government intervention when needed to ensure other basic values, such as universal access.

He got the cable industry re-tweeting the hearing when he said, in answer to a question about his stand on retransmission consent that, as chairman, he would look into cases when “consumers are held hostage over corporate disputes.”

WAIT-AND-SEE ANSWER

He declined to weigh in on shared-services agreements among broadcast-TV stations and whether they are an end-run around local ownership caps. He said he would await a Government Accountability Office study on that impact requested last month by Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

According to a committee source, no vote has yet been planned on Wheeler’s nomination. Rockefeller has indicated it would not occur until after the July 4 break.

Quotations From the Would-Be Chairman

WASHINGTON — Some of FCC chairman-designate Tom Wheeler’s more memorable answers from last week’s nomination hearing:

On 2011 blog comments that merger conditions could be applied industrywide: “What you cited was hypothetical speculation. What a regulator must deal with are the realities of a specific case and the law and precedent that deals with merger review.”

On his approach to indecency: “I remember [former FCC chairman] Newton Minow talking about television’s ‘vast wasteland.’ He did that without regulatory authority. He caught the public’s attention. Maybe it’s possible to do the same kind of thing today, and say, ‘Can’t we do better?’ ”

On the broadcast-spectrum incentive auctions: “I liken it to a Rubik’s cube. Over on this side of the cube, you’ve got to provide an incentive for broadcasters to want to auction their spectrum. On this side of the cube [moving his hands as though working the puzzle], you have to provide a product structured in such a way that incentivizes the wireless carriers or whoever the bidders may be to want to bid. And then, in the middle, on an almost real-time basis, you have to have a band plan that is constantly changing to reflect the variables going on here. That is why this has never been done before. ”

— John Eggerton

TAKEAWAY

FCC chairman-designate Tom Wheeler has emerged from his nomination hearing mostly unscathed, though no vote is likely before July 4.

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