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International Appeal

While skiers and skaters are getting all the headlines, it turns out that Vancouver is not the only place in which nations are coming together. A researcher from Japanese national broadcaster NHK was in Washington last week to interview current and former FCC commissioners on the pros and cons of having an independent regulatory agency.

The Japanese government is said to be looking at creating its own version of an independent agency like the FCC rather than leave oversight under the purview of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, as is currently the case in Japan.

Among the questions prepared for the U.S. regulators was how independent the agency is from Congress, the White House and the courts. And then there was this follow-up question, which shows that Justin Timberlake’s reach extends farther than a Super Bowl halftime stage: “[The] FCC’s rules or orders are not always final and decisive; broadcasting companies often appeal to courts [as in] CBS’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ case. Why is that?”

Why, indeed. It got us to thinking about what conclusions we would draw about our own independent regulatory agency. Obviously, industry players unhappy with regulatory outcomes have the redress of the courts after they have exhausted their commission appeals. But maybe the reason why so many of the FCC’s actions, from upholding the 30% cap on cable subs to defending its attacks on fl eeting nudity and language, wind up in court is that the commission is making some tough-to-defend calls. FCC calls should not be final and decisive because they may be the wrong ones. Our advice to Japan would be that the FCC is like garlic or praise: A little bit goes a long way.

The FCC has an important role to play in making sure the U.S. communications system is strong, secure and interference-free.

But problems come when it strays into micromanaging content in service of a particular social agenda, even one that dresses up well. And bad things happen when it becomes a political agency with an ax to grind (cable’s head on the block, anyone?), rather than acting like an independent agency as mandated in its charter.

The current FCC has gotten good reviews—some by lobbyists, who gain nothing from public criticism. But it has also earned kudos for openness and earnestness, though its pursuit of CBS on the indecency front is a grail-like, Ahab-esque quest that ill behooves it.

Still, we have yet to see this commission’s second gear. So far, the single-minded and seemingly uphill grind has been to get the broadband plan out the door by March 17. After that, look for the rulemakings to start flying, said one veteran observer last week, and the “true north” of this FCC’s compass to be revealed.

To repeat, our advice to this commission would be the same we would give to the budding Japanese version (and thanks for those cherry blossoms, incidentally): A little bit goes a long way.