FCC's O'Rielly: Broadcasters Saddled With Rules Due to FCC Inaction

FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly told an audience of TV executives in Washington Tuesday that it was past time for the FCC to update its media ownership rules, and to start letting the public see items in advance of FCC votes.

O'Rielly was addressing the National Association of Broadcasters annual State Leadership Conference, a chance for those execs to come to Washington and press their issues on the Hill and at the FCC.

O'Rielly was preaching to the choir when he said that the commission continued to saddle broadcasters with restrictions like the newspaper-broadcast ownership rule.

He said the FCC recently had "virtually ignored" the 1996 Telecommunications Act mandate to review and adjust media ownership rules every four years, and repeal or modify any that are no longer in the public interest due to increased competition. O'Rielly worked on the bill as a Republican staffer, so has a personal rooting interest in FCC compliance with its directives.

"Once the only content providers in town, broadcasters must now compete fiercely for listeners and viewers, and you are holding your own in this ultracompetitive environment," he said. "For instance, the most popular TV broadcast programming consistently puts up ratings well beyond the reach of any other content provider."

O'Rielly had plenty to say about FCC process reform, particularly making items public before they are voted on in meetings. O'Rielly and fellow Republican commissioner Ajit Pai have been calling on FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to make the net neutrality draft order public before the Feb. 26 vote, but Wheeler has signaled that is not happening.

"It is time to take transparency past the buzzword stage and make public all FCC items to be considered at our Open Meetings," O'Rielly told the crowd. "Far from being a rare or isolated circumstance, Commissioners must 'vote on it before you can see what’s in it' every single month. While this problem has gotten more attention recently in relation to a certain very high-profile item before us this week, the reasoning applies across the board for every item we consider..."

Given what he said was a lack of transparency, the process "continues to generate unfairness and inefficiency as people attempt to engage on important questions of the day with asymmetrical information."

He also put in a plug for raising more issues to a commission-level decision rather than making them at the bureau level. "Unfortunately, it seems that more and more decisions are being pushed to Commission staff under delegated authority, even in the face of requests from minority Commissioners [that would be O'Rielly and Pai] to bump an item up to the full Commission for resolution."

O'Rielly prefaced his remarks with a brief shout-out for the industry. "The quintessential local business, broadcasters provide great services to your communities, none of which would be possible without the passion and commitment of all of you gathered here today," he said.

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.