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Genachowski's Media Mission

New FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's spacious corner office on the eighth floor of FCC headquarters in Washington remains a work in progress, with empty bookshelves behind his desk and walls not yet filled with mementos or evidence of past accolades.

But there is something of a metaphor for the size of the bureaucracy Genachowski inherits, and of the tasks ahead of him, in the large dead-tree dictionary that sits open next to his office door. “It doesn't have the word 'broadband' in it, or even the word 'Internet,'” he says. “Maybe we will find a 'green' way to be able to look up words.”

Trim, well-dressed, bright-eyed and with a firm-bordering-on “say uncle” handshake, Genachowski seems a man secure in his own skin and convictions. The industries he regulates will know where he's coming from, though they may not always like where he is going. But even the well-dressed “protester”—Weigel Broadcasting President Norman Shapiro—standing in front of the FCC with a sign saying “Please Decide” (at issue: some low-power transfers dating from last August) says he thinks Genachowski will make a great chairman.

Last week, Genachowski shared his vision of the media landscape, broadcast and cable regulation, the challenge of broadband and more with B&C's John Eggerton. While his answers were as controlled and careful as the Harvard lawyer he is, they also revealed something of the man and his mission.

Onetime FCC Chairman Newton Minow famously called TV a “vast wasteland.” Updating TV to “video platform,” how would you characterize the landscape?

I would not attempt to one-up Chairman Minow. We have gone from a world when Newton Minow was chairman of just a few broadcast channels going into every home to, for homes that get cable and satellite, many, many more channels. There is certainly more variety. There has been an incredible mushrooming of creativity on broadcast television since the 1960s. And there have been lots of powerful examples since the '60s of great news, great documentaries and great entertainment on TV.

It is also true that parents are very frustrated when they turn on the TV, whether it's a broadcast-only home or whether they are cable or satellite subscribers. They are frustrated because they see things they don't think are appropriate for their kids, and they are frustrated by their [lack of] ability to do something about it. There is also frustration and confusion about all the different media platforms kids deal with today, with dramatic changes from when Newton Minow was chairman and raising a whole host of new issues.

Like what?

Parents today have hundreds of TV channels in the home, they have a computer in the kitchen, they have a video console in the basement and a mobile phone in their kids' pockets. Each of those devices represents real opportunity for their kids and for the economic growth of the country, and new sources for news, information and entertainment. But they also present a whole host of new issues.

What should or can the FCC do to help them navigate this landscape?

The first step is to look at it seriously and be clear about what the objectives are, and to take a look at what is actually going on in the marketplace. I don't think the objectives have changed since the Children's Television Act was enacted in the 1990s. And though I haven't thought about it before, I expect the objectives haven't changed since Newton Minow was chairman [in the early 1960s] in this area relating to kids. And those are promoting the education and health of our kids, of protecting kids, and empowering parents.

As you know, we announced last week that the FCC will be doing an inquiry into children and the digital media landscape. And we are already doing an inquiry required by the Senate into parental empowerment tools. So the first step is to understand what is going on. The second step is for the FCC to ask what it can do to get better information in the market.

One of the steps we will be taking is revamping the FCC Website with respect to the Children's Television Act information that is public, that broadcasters supply, and that is already on the FCC Website if you look hard enough. We are going to turn that information into something that is user-friendly and parent-friendly.

You signaled that the FCC would ban interactive ads in kids' shows, absent a parental opt-in. Why is that necessary?

The commission looked at this several years ago and tentatively concluded that the risk of interactive advertising in digital programming for kids in the absence of parental consent was too high. This is the ability of a kid watching digital TV and clicking through to a commercial sales site or program. If parents want their kid to have that feature, fine. But if parents are concerned, kids won't be able to easily poke around through children's television programming into commercial sites. From what I have seen, that tentative conclusion seems correct. I want the FCC to finish the process and analyze the record; based on what I know now, I think the outcome will be to codify that tentative conclusion.

We want to clarify that you are not yet concluding that three hours of educational TV per week is too much or even too little, but that essentially everything is still on the table.

It is the right time to have everything on the table. It has been [almost] 20 years since the Children's Television Act was adopted. The commission over the years has taken steps to enforce it. That shouldn't stop. Broadcasting remains a unique medium. It is still the only source of television entertainment for millions of Americans.

But there is no question that the landscape has changed to the point where taking a fresh look at kids in the digital media world against the objectives that we all share is completely right and appropriate.

You used the word “unique” in your testimony on the kids' rules, and talked about how there was more choice “for those who could pay for it.” It sounds like you are convinced broadcast content still needs to be regulated.

Yes, I am convinced that in a world where there are millions of Americans for whom broadcast television is their only video medium, that the core justifications for commission action in this area are unchanged. So, the core mission for the FCC is to enforce public interest obligations with respect to broadcast spectrum. That does not change in a world where so many Americans still only receive broadcast television, and where broadcast television still is, even in many of the homes that receive other forms of programming, the dominant and most-watched form of programming.

The FCC has essentially put the backlog of indecency complaints on the back burner while the courts hash things out. The Supreme Court has weighed in and said the fleeting-profanity justification passed muster, and nudity may as well. Where is the FCC in terms of what it can do on indecency enforcement?

The FCC's job in indecency is to defend and enforce the laws. I spoke in my confirmation hearings about sharing the concern parents have about what children see on TV. So the commission's job is to enforce the law and address pending complaints in the backlog.

Will you be working through that backlog?

We will be. Litigation is ongoing. Our general counsel started last week, and he has not had a chance to look into it and make a recommendation with respect to overall litigation strategy. Our responsibilities are to defend and enforce the law. This is an area where the general counsel's view on what the right process is moving forward—since the litigation still is pending—is important. He is in the middle of studying it.

What can you tell us about the state of journalism inquiry circulated by then-acting chairman Michael Copps?

I have real concerns, as many Americans do, about what is going on in America with respect to newspapers, local news and information. It has been an area of ongoing interest at the FCC from the beginning. Local news and information has been a core pillar of the Communications Act and remains that. So I share the concern of many Americans, and I respect the leadership the commissioner has taken. The commission will be tackling this topic, but we haven't announced a timetable.

Let's talk about broadband for a moment. Is it broadband plan first and everything else second, or do you have to juggle all these balls at once?

The commission has an obligation to juggle all the balls. I have tried in my public remarks to staff and in meetings to outline the strategic priorities: promoting universal broadband—essential; promoting job creation, economic growth, innovation and investment—essential; protecting and empowering consumers, public safety, promoting a vibrant media landscape, and revitalizing and retooling the FCC. This is a manageable set of strategic priorities that the commission can tackle and will tackle. We have to be able to do more than one thing at once.

Weigel Broadcasting PresidentNorman Shapiro told us he has three low-power TV station-license transfer applications pending that were filed last August, and that the FCC hasn't ruled on them yet. He says all he wants is a decision. Is there hope for him?

I am not familiar with his case, but one of the topics I raise with each of the bureaus and offices is backlog. The public has a right to expect that the commission will expeditiously decide matters that are before it. I have asked each of the different bureaus to look at their backlogs to the extent that they have them and take care of matters that are languishing.

Diversity of voices and opinion was part of the president's overarching communications policy position. Can you draw a distinction between the Fairness Doctrine, which you oppose, and promoting diversity of voices?

That's a good question. I would ask those who think they are related to explain to me how they are. The Fairness Doctrine ultimately has the huge risk of getting the government involved in censoring speech on the basis of political views and opinion. And that is not acceptable to me. Chilling speech was the core reason that the Fairness Doctrine was repealed. The commission, as long as I am here, won't have any interest in reinstating it and doing anything to censor speech based on political views and opinions.

The interest in diversity goes back to the beginnings of the Communications Act. It goes back to core principles underlying the First Amendment. We benefit as a society when we have a vibrant marketplace of ideas representing different points of view. And that is a proposition that I don't think has been disputed.