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Editorial: The ChairRecognized

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s announced exit from the commission sometime in the next several weeks was that proverbial other shoe Washington had been waiting to hear drop for months.

Genachowski’s statement triggered a good deal of praise for his tenure, mixed with some harsh criticism from anti-consolidation activists. The chairman’s take, according to aides, has generally been that if you’re getting heat from both ends of the spectrum (excuse the pun), you must be doing something right. We’re not sure that always holds, but in this case we believe it does.

The chairman got a lot right during his almost four years in the big chair. That included starting to migrate the Universal Service Fund to broadband, taking a number of steps to give cable operators more control of their bandwidth to make it easier to build out their service—though usually it was the broadband side that was getting the boost—and taking a cautious approach to calls to remake retransmission procedure.

The chairman succeeded in getting cable operators to the table and securing their buy-in, or at least relative silence, on network neutrality rules that could have been worse. And while we disagreed with his decision to keep the Title II docket open, it was a strategic chip no one should have expected him to give up.

Given that then-Sen. Barack Obama weighed in against loosening the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rules back when Republican Commissioner Kevin Martin proposed doing so, Genachowski had plenty of cover, and almost certainly two votes, for resolving the media ownership rules by taking no action. Instead, he defended the Martin rules and tried to reintroduce a similar change. The ban should have been lifted, but at least the chairman recognized that broadcasters (and newspapers) needed some help.

It was probably a strategic misstep to try to separate the rule change from the diversity studies that were supposed to be conducted at the same time. Genachowski has cited budget issues, but we’re not sure that flies. The result is that a vote on media ownership rules will now be kicked down the road to the next chairman, with broadcasters essentially resigned to having no help in sight.

It’s hard to lay fault either with Genachowski or the administration for focusing on broadband, given the explosion of that technology into every corner of life and businesses. But we do, at least as far as the other side of the coin, which is the treatment of broadcasting. Both the FCC and the administration have sometimes appeared to have a blind spot about the millions of Americans, many of them minorities, who rely on over-the-air TV, and not just as a lifeline for news and emergency information, but as their affordable entertainment, some of it targeted to their particular culture and in their own language.

An administration that cared enough to spend billions to make sure the over-the-air audience could receive digital overthe- air broadcasts via the converter box program appeared to suddenly downplay the impact on that audience of reclaiming spectrum, or moving to a broadband model of video delivery.

And while the FCC did spend too much time defending the previous chairman’s fleeting indecency enforcement policy—frankly, five seconds would have been too much time—Genachowski last fall signaled the FCC was not so interested in being a national nanny. He reinforced that last week with the news that the commission had dismissed over 1 million complaints for a variety of reasons, and was seeking comment on whether the FCC should return to a more restrained policy. It should.

To his credit, Genachowski did not tilt at windmills with a lance of regulatory righteousness or appear to view consolidation as bad in and of itself—see “Comcast/NBCU, deal of”—which did not sit well with anti-consolidation activists for whom any help to the industry was seen as consorting with the enemy. Instead, the chairman took a more pragmatic approach—having had to, in a past life, actually run a business and negotiate broadcast deals, and in his current life at least recognizing that the marketplace had changed.

We’ll reserve our wish list for the next chairman for another editorial. But for now, suffice it to say that any future FCC chief who does not support the long-overdue lifting of the ban on newspaper/ broadcast cross-ownership does not have a sufficient handle on the marketplace to warrant the seat.