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D.C. Starts Year With Heat Wave

As members of Congress headed home after a late December session, a lot of unfinished business remained on the communications front. Meanwhile, the FCC's broadband team was looking at the commission as a second home for the holidays, with officials working toward their looming Feb. 17 deadline for the national broadband plan.

The year ahead looks to be an extremely busy one, with the broadband plan implicating both broadcasting and cable (and virtually every other sector of the economy), media-ownership rules getting a vetting in the FCC and in the courts, network neutrality teed up, key court cases on content and network management, and perhaps even must-carry. Much of that action is front-loaded in January (see sidebar).

A federal shield law will be on the docket for early 2010; Congress is slated to return on Jan. 19. Last year, the law fell victim to concerns about the definition of “bloggers”; Republicans' worries about tipping the balance of power too far toward journalists and the courts; and both parties' focus on health care and a bill to reauthorize the defense budget.

The satellite distant-signal license also lost out to the dwindling calendar, plus a deal to let DISH Network back into the distant signal that made it too hot to handle before the holiday break. Lawmakers will only have six weeks (until March 1) to get a bill completed or pass another extension.

Broadcasters and financial types will gather at the FCC on Jan. 12 for the year's first workshop on media-ownership rules, with hope for some movement on that front supplied by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. That court has given the FCC until Jan. 7 to state why it should not lift the stay on the commission's loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules.

Also on tap for January are oral arguments in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on the FCC's profanity ruling against Fox. That case could give the Supreme Court a chance to rule on the constitutionality of the FCC's fleeting-indecency crackdown, or even its authority to regulate decency at all.

The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is set to hear arguments this week in Comcast's challenge to the BitTorrent decision. Depending on how soon a decision comes, it could impact the FCC's order on network neutrality, which is expected sometime midyear, though no earlier than late spring.

Elsewhere on the Comcast front, the Comcast-NBC Universal deal will take almost a year to vet, according to most handicappers, including Hill hearings. The official process in Washington begins with the filings this month.

Looking deeper into the New Year, “spectrum, spectrum, spectrum” is how one communications attorney handicapped the top three issues of 2010 for broadcasters. The Feb. 17 release of the FCC's spectrum plan could be the Fort Sumter of a battle for spectrum if the broadband plan includes turning over broadcast real estate to the wireless industry. The government will continue giving out billions in broadband stimulus money in the next few weeks.

Cable operators will be looking for a decision out of the FCC on Wealth TV's program carriage complaint, and on the order to narrow/eliminate the terrestrial exemption that the FCC is contemplating. And armed with a stay of its must-carry mandate for a New York TV station, Cablevision will ask the Supreme Court to rethink the must-carry regime, saying the Turner decisions have been mooted by competition.

Both the cable and broadcast sides could get guidance on retransmission consent, depending on how the FCC rules on the Mediacom carriage complaint against Sinclair. Cable and broadcast programmers will also be keeping an eye out for an online privacy bill that House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has promised.

Billions at stake

The ad community is facing what one top lobbyist calls perhaps the most active regulatory environment since the New Deal. Crackdowns are expected on green marketing and financial services marketing (the latter a byproduct of the mortgage crisis). New guidelines are likely on food and beverage advertising, and the threat to $4 billion-plus in drug ads related to health-care legislation.

Billions of dollars are at stake, says Dan Jaffe, executive VP of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers. Jaffe says the FCC could take some action on tightening product placement. He is also concerned about what might come of its October notice of inquiry on kids programming in the digital age; comments are due on Jan. 25.

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