The O’Rielly Factor

Michael O'Rielly
Michael O’Rielly has been a consistent vote for deregulation throughout his tenure on the FCC. (Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly is exiting the Federal Communications Commission after seven years on the panel and 27 years in public service. He was a Capitol Hill staffer before getting the post. 

O’Rielly said he will be returning to the private sector, but has not yet firmed up plans as, when he conducted this exit interview, he was still working on agency business in preparation for the Dec. 10 public meeting.

The Republican was an ally of chairman Ajit Pai’s deregulation efforts, though in some cases would have gone even further. He spoke to B+C senior content producer, Washington, John Eggerton about his time at the commission and the issues about which he remains passionate.

Also Read: Republican Nathan Simington Confirmed to FCC Seat

B+C: In a speech to the Media Institute you said, ‘Massive changes are needed if we’re going to avoid sending legacy providers the way of the woolly mammoth.’ 

Michael O’Rielly: There is a very competitive, vibrant, over-the-top offering that is already there for consumers and that will be expanding in the future. That puts incredible pressure on legacy providers. Some of them are migrating their own services, so they are competing with themselves and that requires the FCC to, for one, better define the marketplace and competitors so we can better regulate as necessary. That means eliminating a number of burdens that no longer make any sense. We have barely scratched the surface with our media-modernization efforts. 

B+C: The FCC has never acted on requests to classify over-the-top as a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD). Should the FCC treat them both the same, and should that be regulating OTT or deregulating traditional video? 

MO: I do have some deep questions about the authority of the FCC to do so, but I don’t think that is the right path to go. We should be providing relief to legacy providers rather than trying to capture over-the-top providers. Doing so is not going to make it better for consumers. We ought to instead give legacy providers a fighting chance.

B+C: Any advice on how the government can prevent COVID-19 broadband money from subsidizing overbuilds? 

MO: I think Congress has done a fairly decent job of trying to put some statutory obligations to prevent overbuilding, though I would have gone further. Overbuilding itself is not problematic — it’s subsidized overbuilding using CARES Act funding or any government funding. There will likely be more stimulus money and infrastructure money and it has to be very clear how the dollars will be spent.

I realize the incredible need to get the dollars out the door to help stimulate the economy, but that is not how you should do telecom policy, especially when you are going to crush existing providers in the marketplace.

B+C:  What decision that you have been involved with do you think will have the most lasting impact? 

MO: I am very proud of the children’s television reforms. They aren’t as far as I would have liked them to go, but nobody sued and it provided the type of relief that is necessary. 

B+C: In that Media Institute speech, you talked about ‘purveyors of First Amendment gibberish … demeaning the values of the Constitution.’ Who were you talking about and to whom were you directing that? 

MO: That was about a larger conversation about regulating the edge. I don’t want to relive that speech, but it wasn’t targeted at any one person or one group or any segment. It was about highlighting the importance of the First Amendment, which is paramount to me, and how it can’t be ignored whether other statutory provisions come or go.

The First Amendment will live on regardless of what Congress does or doesn’t do on the [Section 230 internet] liability issue. Those people who were trying to say, ‘Oh, I am consistent with the First Amendment’ or ‘I really believe in the First Amendment. I just want to try and stick it to these groups for whatever reason,’ I just disagreed with that.

B+C: You have issues with the FCC’s authority to do something about Section 230, right? 

MO: Yes, I have not seen any more clarity than we previously had. I don’t know how the legal structure was determined by the legal counsel to the chairman, and the chairman saying we do have authority. [The Trump Administration petitioned the FCC to regulate the edge via Section 230.] I would have to analyze it more closely, but I was skeptical before and I think I am still skeptical.

B+C: If you had a do-over, is there anything you would change? 

MO: I’m not sure there is. I won’t say I got everything right but based on the information I had, I made the soundest decision I could reflecting the record and the statute. 

I wish we could have done more together and that there was a more collaborative process. I think the current structure needs a lot of work. 

I probably would have pushed for more dereg, but I have been harping on that for years and I’m not sure I could have gotten any further on it.

B+C: Any advice for your successor?  

MO: I try not to give anyone advice, but something I do say to everyone, not just my successor, but to anyone who wants to do this job is to read the items. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Do the homework yourself. Then you can have a thoughtful argument and make a thoughtful case.

I won’t name names, but I was annoyed when some of my colleagues in the past didn’t always read the items, so when you went to argue a particular piece of something or sentence, they didn’t know what you were talking about. That, to me, is poor. Always understand what you are fighting for.

B+C: What’s next?

MO: To be determined. I have not spent too much time thinking about it because I am still voting on items. But I will just see where the road takes me.

B+C: But I assume it will take you to the private sector? 

MO: Oh, yes. I am done with my government service. I’ve done 27 years in government. This is a moment when I think the Lord Almighty said, ‘Move on.’ I was willing to do some more time, but the powers that be said otherwise.

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.