House Communications Subcommittee Plans FCC Oversight Hearing

House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) says the subcommittee is scheduling an FCC oversight with the now five commissioners for December.

In a meeting with reporters Thursday, Walden said he had yet to meet new Chairman Tom Wheeler or Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly. "We are reaching out to the Federal Communications Commission now that there are five members fully on board," he said, suggesting it was part of a continuing effort to meet with the commissioners.

Walden said he was already encouraged by Chairman Tom Wheeler's comments about the need to do process reform. Wheeler has asked aide Diane Cornell to head up a temporary working group and produce a report by the end of the year. Walden praised the tapping of Cornell for Wheeler's staff. "I commend chairman Wheeler for his interest in trying to make the FCC more transparent and more accountable," he said, an issue he expected would come up in the oversight hearing.

Walden said he was still trying to figure out, in consultation with the FCC and Democrats, what process reform could be accomplished. A Walden-backed reform bill has passed out of committee, but Democrats have big issues with it, particularly any effort to limit FCC merger conditions.

Also likely to come up at the hearing, Walden said, is the status of the FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to eliminate the UHF discount, which it voted on in September.

Walden has had issues with the way the FCC approved the UHF discount NPRM, saying that, as of that December date, it would treat the discounts as already being gone, even though a final order has not been voted on.

That, said Walden, froze the marketplace.

Both Walden and Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) were unhappy with the vote. "This gets back to when an appointed commission acts in a less than responsible way," said Walden. When a reporter pointed out that eliminating the discount was just squaring the rules with the fact that in the digital age, UHFs are the stronger not weaker stations, Walden said: "We didn't argue that they should not address a change in the rule, the argument was with the way they said "Stop everybody right here and now until we decide what the rule is going to be."

He also said that there would be an oversight hearing Nov. 21 on FirstNet, the interoperable broadband first responder network being paid for by FCC auctions revenues.

Walden did not have much to say about the over-the-top video reform bill proposed this week by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). He did call it a "bery bold initiative" and suggested Rockefeller would reach out to stakeholders for their input. But he did say the video marketplace was changing dynamically since the communications laws were passed and would be part of his committee's discussions about how and whether those laws have kept pace. But he said he was not in a position to "pick winners and losers or say what we like or don't like."

Rep. Walden suggested that any look at retrans reform would likely await a court decision on Aereo. "The courts are now going to make that decision and I think the outcome of that decision will, perhaps, influence what happens going forward." He pointed out that Fox's Chase Carey at the NAB convention in discussing Aereo said that programming has value and they needed to be compensated or they could not afford to produce that programming. "It will be potentially a disruptor of the marketplace if it is held to be legal and that certainly will affect current law."

Walden said that decision was between finding Aereo "a legal new innovator in the marketplace" or "another company just skirting the law."

Walden said he still plans to release a draft of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act by the end of first-quarter 2014. It must be renewed by the end of 2014 or it will expire.

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.