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The Chair Recognizes Himself...In A Funhouse Mirror

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Thursday night poked fun at his reputation, fair or not, for indecision; for his lawyerly evasion of questions; his aborted attempt at Title II reclassification, and other criticisms leveled by both industry and the public interest community.

But after a heaping helping of good-natured self-deprecation, he had plenty of deprecation left over for everybody else, including National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow, Verizon, Free Press and even his predecessors in the FCC’s big chair.

Those barbs, self-inflicted and otherwise, have become the hallmark of the Federal Communications Bar Association’s (FCBA) annual Chairman’s Dinner, held Thursday night at the Washington Hilton. A roomful of lawyers and lobbyists and lawyer/lobbyists spent more time in the aisles than their chairs. pressing the flesh with FCC staffers, congressfolk and each other.

In an opening “PSA” for FCBA–the chairman’s face was superimposed on everyone from James Bond to Yoda to Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (yes, that scene, though not all of that scene). The tape, a send-up of the Dos Equis “most interesting man” commercials,” was peppered with some peppy one-liners at the chairman’s expense. “He’s not afraid of heights,” said the tape, “but he’s terrified of widths,” a nonsequitorial start that struck an endearingly goofy note. “He likes his martinis shaken and stirred. He calls that a win-win,” the voiceover continued.

Superimposed into Jerry Maguire, the verbal beatings continued. “He had you at hello, but kept talking until people lost interest. He is the most interesting chairman currently at the FCC.”

“He is not afraid of taking tough questions, as long as no one is expecting intelligible answers,” the voiceover continued. Then there were a couple more really good one-liners that I can’t reconstitute from my tape because I was laughing too loud, followed by: “He can handle the truth, but he is going back to the D.C. Circuit anyway,” a reference to the Title I net neutrality defense that got hammered the first time around. Cut to Genachowski in “The Godfather.” “When he got the offer, he refused, but then he tried to broker a sensible compromise.”

Cut to scene from “Sixth Sense,” Genachowski as the kid: “He sees dead people. Some of them were still alive when he started the open Internet proceeding.”

With the tape as warm-up act, Genachowski proceeded with the stand-up portion of the evening’s entertainment. He pointed out that Prince William had finally gotten engaged. “I hate it when people take too long to make a decision,” he said.

It did not take long for the chairman to take aim at McSlarrow, who was seated at a table close to the stage. “Kyle McSlarrow announced he is leaving NCTA,” Genachowski said. “At about the same time, the President and the Republicans struck a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts and unemployment benefits. Kyle is not sure whether he should be excited about the former or the latter.” Laughter, but with ample groaning. McSlarrow is exiting to join the ranks of either a cable operator or programmer.

But as an equal opportunity roaster, Genachowski took aim at the phone industry as well.

He said the Chilean miner rescue was a remarkable story, but that an unfortunate side note was that it turned out one of the miners’ phones was roaming. “Talk about bill shock.” He said. The miner tried to get the charges waived. “But the customer service rep said: ‘Only the first 1,000 feet underground are free.’ They called it a depth charge.”

He then turned the joke on Free Press, which has complained about the FCC-hosted stakeholder meetings on net neutrality. “And if that weren’t bad enough,” he said, Free press attacked the trapped miners “for meeting in closed quarters.”

The chairman’s roasting of the telcos got even hotter. “Our enforcement bureau worked incredibly hard on a settlement with Verizon on unauthorized mystery fees, the largest in FCC history,” he said, adding that those fees might be a bigger problem than he realized. He said he had looked closely at his own phone bill and found “$1.99 for the Buffy Seidenberg scholarship. What’s that?” Ivan Seidenberg is chairman of Verizon.

One of the subtler, ‘wait for it’ jabs, and one that arguably got the most sustained laughter, was aimed good naturedly at former FCC chairmen–Michael Powell, Dick Wiley and former acting Chair Michael Copps were all in the room. “Earlier this year, the FCC was selected as the most improved agency in the federal government,” said, pausing a half beat. “All the credit belongs to my predecessors.” The laughter morphed into sustained applause and a hoot or two.

The chairman then ticked off a couple of the “questionable”–and apocryphal–recommendations he said had “slipped into” the National Broadband Plan.

“To achieve universal broadband all Americans should move to South Korea.”

“With every broadband subscription, a free Snuggie*.” (The joke was accompanied by a picture of former Broadband Plan Advisor Blair Levin in a Snuggie and holding a copy of the plan). Levin was in the audience, sitting with former Chairman Michael Powell, but there was no Snuggie in evidence.

Noting that Powell, along with former FCC Chairmen Kevin Martin and Reed Hundt. had recently teamed up for an episode of C-Span’s Communicators series, Genachowski said they had decided to re-team on a reality show, “Dancing For Spectrum.”

A graphic showed the three as judges (though curiously teamed with Idol’s Simon Cowell rather than Len or Bruno or Carrie Ann) watching cell phone lobbyist Steve Largent* dancing. “Everyone will watch it,” the chairman said, “even people who think ’spectrum crunch’ is a breakfast cereal.” He said Largent and National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith would be contestants, with billions of dollars of spectrum allocated to whoever can do the best cha-cha. “David Zaslav I hope you are here,” he said, referring to the Discovery CEO. “This could be big. And if Congress doesn’t authorize incentive auctions, we’ve got a backup plan.

A highlight of the chairman’s stand-up was a mock iPad app, the FCBA translator. He said it was a beta version of a voice-to-text and voice-to-voice app that would translate lawyerspeak.

Some examples:

His Chief of Staff Eddie Lazarus’ observation: “We are so close to a deal” translated as: “I can’t believe I moved from L.A. for this?”

“FCC rules must promote a level playing field” translated as “Regulate them, not us.”

“Industry needs regulatory certainty” translated to “industry will litigate this forever.”

He said the app was also good for translating ex parte filings, which are the documents parties must file after they have met with commissioners or staff about an issue under review.

“I met with an advisor to the chairman” became “I’m never going to get a $@%#! meeting with the $#%&* chairman.” He added that it was “a good thing we turned on the child protection feature.”

“Carriers need to be able to manage their networks without burdensome regulation” translated as “Don’t touch my junk.”

And what of the other side of that network neutrality debate?

“Innovators and consumers need protection against online discrimination” translated as…”Don’t touch my junk.”

“I knew there was broad consensus on this topic,” he said.

Also per tradition, the Genachowski briefly waxed serious to thank his wife and kids, FCC staffers including those deployed oversees with the military, and his fellow commissions. ” I am proud of what we have already accomplished together, and I look forward to ongoing collaboration.”

He may have to look fairly far forward, at least beyond the planned Dec. 21 vote on network neutrality for that hoped-for collaboration. Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker Thursday called out the chairman in a speech to many of those same lawers Thursday for not putting out his draft net neutrality order for public comment, and suggested the FCC was overstepping its bounds into some deep legal kimchi in the face of court and congressional directives to the contrary.

A senior FCC official shot back in an e-mailed statement to B&C/Multichannel News: “”We are hard pressed to think of an issue that has been more publicly debated and dissected than preserving a free and open Internet. Over the last 14 months, we’ve had hundreds of meetings, held numerous public workshops, received more than 100,000 comments, and even released a text of the proposed rules. The draft order was circulated to all of the Commissioners a full three weeks in advance of the vote, a courtesy that Chairman Genachowski has consistently extended. So, we are particularly perplexed by Commissioner Baker’s call for yet more time given that it took her less than 24 hours to read the order and publicly declare her flat opposition to the proposal. ”

Maybe the chairman actually said “clobber-ation.”

Did I mention the soup was really good at this dinner. It was billed as Pea, Brie and Ginger Bisque, which sounds like a great name for a female triplets if anyone is planning on having them, but made for an even better first course.

* Pretend there is a little superscript circle with an “r” inside it after Snuggie in all references ’cause I can’t find the registration mark on this keyboard and it is really late.

** Given that professional athletes, including football players, have done very well on “Dancing With the Stars,” I asked Largent how he thought he would do. “Not well,” he said.Largent is the former star wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.