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FCC General Charges the Field

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was called to the stage to begin his speech to the Federal Communications Bar Association at its annual FCC Chairman's Dinner Thursday (Dec. 4) in Washington, but no Wheeler appeared. After a pause a video rolled showing Wheeler at his home, his car, a Mini Cooper, blocked by three sitting behind the car in protest of the dinner--mimicking Wheeler's "confrontation" with net neutrality protestors several weeks back.

Laughter, followed by the chairman, ramrod straight, tall, charcoal suit with pinstripes, every hair in place, and with one of those purple ties that can look on the blue side or the red. He said he was amazed by the coverage of the network neutrality "kerfuffle" in front of his house--a man who uses "kerfuffle" gets style points in my book--and said  that he was going to answer some questions. "Yes, I can fit in a Mini Cooper," he said. Wheeler pointed out that the car was equipped with WifI, so he called it "the network compact." (The first joke for which a snare and cymbal riff were needed). He paused, then added: "It is not a hybrid"--loud applause--a reference to the hybrid Title II/Sec. 706 proposals that the FCC is entertaining for new network neutrality rules.

There actually were a handful of protestors outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, though safely on the sidewalk. Free Press had set up a Jumbotron filled with pro Title II videos, including President Obama's title II video (pictured above), while three hearty protestors manned--and womaned--what looked to be homemade light boards that together read: "Save The Net."

A Free Press spokesperson said they had gotten a special permit to park the truck in front of the hotel, but almost didn’t' when the space was taken by someone else. She eventually showed up, though there was a little sadness in the Free Press camp that they had not been towed.

Inside, Wheeler was pretty much of an equal opportunity roaster--the chairman is expected to poke pointed fun at the industry and Wheeler did not disappoint. He also took aim at the gathering of some 1,700 lawyers, lobbyists and journalists, saying that Ted Cruz had called the dinner the "Obamacare of Humor." One attendee cracking wise after the dinner said it was the only crowd where "3.5 GHz" is a punchline, and everybody gets it.

Wheeler has gotten some grief for asserting that, while he was glad to have the other commissioners around, he was the CEO of the FCC ( He played to the joke with his own. He said the Hilton wanted the room cleared by 10, then added: I lead an independent agency and nobody tells me what to do."

A running gag was broadcasters and the localism that they (and sometimes legislators and others) are frequently citing in the face of new ownership rules and spectrum reclamation proposals, including when trying--ultimately unsuccessfully--to stop the FCC from unwinding joint sales agreements (JSA's).

Wheeler said that the National Association of Broadcasters had disagreed with that decision, and it had been "a tough call." But then he proceeded to try and poke a hole in that localism argument with a video compilations (from a Conan skit) of the same scripted line on newscasts at various stations--introducing packaged stories about social networks for dogs,Christmas presents  and equally compelling subjects, or at least one more equally compelling subject, that suggested Wheeler thought the call was not that tough after all.

He broke into the speech three times to roll those different compilations of the same line parroted in newscasts, including to close the show after he had said he would close with a Comcast joke (see below).

In a nod to the Mozilla hybrid network neutrality proposal, as well as the White House call for straight up Title II, Wheeler thanked Mozilla for drafting the first version of his remarks, and the President "for the edits."

At last year's dinner, Wheeler pitched his book. This year he did the same, but added a new book with the mock title to the effect of "How to Make $40 Billion Selling Spectrum.". That was a reference to the AWS-3 auction, a running theme given its runaway success. He later pointed out that critics of Title II had said it would deter investment, then repeated the $41-plus billion figure just cause he liked the sound of it.

Last year, he pointed out, he was pilloried from all sides over the cell phones on planes decision. "We think of those as the good old days," he said, a reference to the not-so-friendly fire from both sides over net neutrality.

Wheeler said he had planned to do a joke about Comcast EVP David Cohen and how he accused deal proponents of extortion, but said that Cohen said that if he did, he would be kneecapped. Cohen joked about it afterwards and the Comcast/NBCU folks were good natured about the roasting.

He cited the newly formed group in opposition to the Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal, StopMegaComcast. That sure puts the "b" in subtle, he quipped.

Wheeler took aim at NAB exec Rick Kaplan, though not by name, simply saying there was a former FCC staffer who had helped come up with the incentive auction--Kaplan used to be the chief of the Wireless Bureau, and now was panning it. He took aim at Verizon for sueing the FCC over the old Sec.706 -based network neutrality rules. He said now those were looking pretty good (compared with Title II was the subtext).

And AT&T did not escape. He said AT&T was going to build fiber to 100 cities, until they weren't, then they were.

Joking about his age, Wheeler said that at his age he had to go through an uncomfortable procedure that is hard to talk about: House Energy & Commerce Committee oversight hearings. He said he hoped the Republicans believed in limited government when it came to oversight.

Wheeler first told B&C/Multichannel News of his opposition to the name of the Washington football team. He did not say Redskins, but said instead that the "Washington professional football team sucks." He then cited the petition to deny the license renewals of some stations over airing the name. Wheeler does not usually weigh in on matters before the commission, so his branding of the petition as "frivolous" sounded momentarily newsworthy. But it was not to be. "How can they possible be serious," he said, calling the team "professional."

Wheeler pointed out that Verizon had pulled the plug on a news services, Sugar String, that, and he said he was not making it up, prohibited any reporting on network neutrality. He said that was a shame because it was the best news he had heard out of Verizon in a long time.

It was inevitable that John Oliver's wicked "dingo" send-up of Wheeler on HBO, and Wheeler's humorous retort at a press conference that he was not a dingo, would get a mention. It was mostly just to roll the good bits from the video, which were sufficiently funny in their own right, but he did poke fun at Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, whose dry reading of statute had tickled Oliver. He also pointed out that given that the FCC's goal was to stimulate the Web economy, he took some pride in the "I am not a Dingo" T-shirts and tote bags, and more on telecom point, cell phone cases that had cropped up for sale online. He proceeded to display his own cell phone so encased.

Wheeler poked fun at Commissioner Ajit Pai and the playoff loss of his beloved Kansas City Royals. It is not, Wheeler pointed out, Pai's first 3-2 loss. Ouch.

The chairman capped the evening with one last Comcast joke, a send-up of the viral "Customer Service Call from Hell" call featuring Wheeler instead trying to get through to Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts to talk about the TWC deal.

After a frustrating hour on hold, "Tim' Wheeler as he is referred to by the rep, agrees to the merger in exchange for free Showtime.

But Wheeler wasn't quite done. After praising FCC staffers, giving a shout out to FCBA's charitable work, and saying he was proud to serve with all of his fellow commissioners, he closed with a third video roll of newscasters parroting the same line, though at least it ended with "I love you."