NAB 2017: FCC's Pai Launching May Media Reg Review

Full Coverage of NAB 2017

FCC chairman Ajit Pai told a broadcaster audience in Las Vegas Tuesday that he is launching a major review of broadcast regs—and cable and satellite regs—at the May 18 public meeting and that he has already circulated an item to that effect to the other commissioners. 

The chairman also promised that under his chairmanship, broadcasting and broadcasters will not be a "speed bump" but an indispensable part of the communications landscape. 

Pai was keynoting the April 25 general session at NAB Show, addressing an audience already benefitting from his deregulatory bent—restoring the UHF discount, signaling fewer restrictions on joint sales agreements, enacting process reforms—and looking for more help, including eliminating crossownership rules, small-market duopoly restrictions, raising the 39% national ownership cap and swift action on rolling out the new ATSC 3.0 next gen transmission standard, all of which Pai appears poised to deliver on. 

"[A]t the FCC’s next public meeting on May 18, we will vote on a proposal to start a comprehensive review of the FCC’s media regulations," he said. "This morning, I circulated the Public Notice to my fellow Commissioners that would kick off this review. We’ll also explore whether certain rules should be modified to provide regulatory relief to small businesses. And to be clear, while our broadcast regulations will be a critical subject of this proceeding, we will also review rules pertaining to cable and direct broadcast satellite."

The chairman clearly signaled he was gunning for the newspaper/broadcast crossownership ban. "It seems pretty clear that many of them don’t—including one dating back to 1975," he said. "Ask yourself: do you take seriously any assessment of the market for news that says 'That Internet thing—just ignore it?'"    

He said he was "fundamentally optimistic" about their industry's future, primarily because of what he called its "timeless" values of localism, diversity and public service.

Pai said the country will "always need people in their communities to do investigative reporting to keep local leaders honest, always need a trusted source of information on disasters, and will always need the shared experiences that connect communities. That's why I believe we will always need broadcasters," he said.

Pai said he was not just "spraying sunshine." He cited stats that local news programming on TV stations was up 40% since 2004, and not because of any government mandates. "It occurred because broadcasters responded to consumer demand and competitive pressures. So I don’t see the free market as the enemy of localism. To the contrary, I see them as entirely compatible."

Pai said he wanted the U.S. to lead the world in broadcasting, which is why the FCC was going to move quickly, at least in FCC terms, on ATSC 3.0.

As to trimming media regs, the chairman said at the May 18 meeting, the FCC would vote on a comprehensive review of media regulations, including whether some need to be modified to help small businesses.

He said the effort would also include cable and satellite regs, in an overall effort to have the regulatory landscape match the world as it is now.

Pai weighed in on the incentive auction, saying that part of the FCC's post-auction repacking process was “to ensure the transition’s ultimate success, including a smooth and efficient repacking process." Part of that is "making sure that no protected television broadcaster is forced to go dark due to circumstances beyond its control," he said.

Pai basked in long applause when he was done with a speech that was music to the ears of many in the audience.

American Cable Association president Matt Polka joined the applause, remotely.

"ACA agrees with Chairman Pai that the time is now for the agency to comb through cable and broadcasting regulations in search of rules that are out of step with current market conditions and are no longer necessary to serve the public interest," he said following the announcement. "ACA looks forward to filing comments and offering specific, data-backed recommendations and guidance that the FCC can use to ensure that smaller video providers can devote their limited time and capital to investments in their networks, rather than complying with outdated regulations. ACA believes that today's announcement is a good step forward and it looks forward to working with Chairman Pai and the other FCC Commissioners on identifying those media regulations that should be eliminated, just as it has previously provided similar recommendations on telecom regulations that have outlived their usefulness."

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.