Pai Serves Up Zingers at D.C. Dinner

FCC chair Ajit Pai took aim at Sinclair Broadcast Group and Verizon, but mostly at himself, at the Federal Communications Bar Association Dinner in Washington, an annual self-roast of sorts in front of a crowd of lawyers, lobbyists and journalists at the Hilton Hotel Thursday night (Dec. 7).

Pai, who already injects more humor into monthly meetings than any chairman in the last three decades at least, was in his element cracking wise about the big issues of the day, though the speech was relatively light on the cultural or song references.

Not so entertained were the three dozen or so pro-net neutrality protestors bundled up outside the hotel, holding signs, chanting--Call: "tell me what democracy looks like!" "Response: This is what democracy looks like!"--and projecting messages on the building across from the Hotel, including: "No slow lanes. Open and Equal Access for All." There were also three lonely protestors down the street from the net neutrality group, holding up signs opposing the Sinclair-Tribune merger.

Related: Boston Globe Comes Out Against Sinclair-Tribune

Both issues got airtime during Pai's stand-up.

But there were no protests inside, as the audience dined on shrimp and bacon chowder, tenderloin and crab cake and a chocolate espresso souffle, then settled in for the evening's entertainment.

Pai opened with a phrase in Russian on the order of "this is going to be a big night," apparently a reference to the election meddling, or congressional collusion investigation (see below), or both.

He segued into net neutrality, joking that there were only seven more days to use the Internet. The FCC circulated the agenda Thursday for the Dec. 14 public meeting confirming that the chairman's order reclassifying ISPs as information services not subject to Title II regs, and rolling back rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, was indeed on the agenda. Its critics--who held a nationwide day of protest Thursday--say it will kill the Internet.

"You think I'm joking," he added. "It's true…. I read it on the Internet."

Pai said that in deference to the dinner's main sponsor, Sinclair, there was some must-run content, a reference to the conservative opinion pieces Sinclair stations run.

He then played clips from a couple of Behind the Headlines op ed segments by Mark Hyman, the "Listen Up Snowflake" and "Cultural Appropriation" segments, mocking them as the audience laughed along.

Pai suggested he had decided to seek input on his jokes and had received 22 million responses--a nod to the voluminous net neutrality record--but that 7.5 million were automatically generated knock-knock jokes.

He said edge provider-backed New America had submitted jokes, but they had to be approved by Google (groan).

Pai has been hammering Twitter for censoring conservative content. He said that Twitter had been a great source of suggestions about "what I could do with myself."

Related: Pai: Apple Promoting Online Censorship

Pai is a former lawyer for Verizon and has been accused of trying to help Sinclair, including by restoring the UHF discount, adopting an ATSC rollout framework, and even by eliminating the main studio rule.

He said that the worst-case scenario would be a retrans dispute between Verizon and Sinclair: "How do you choose between a longtime love and a newfound crush," he said.

He used the Sinclair-Tribune merger to both 1) suggest that it would hardly be the news monopoly some were accusing it of and 2) take a shot at MSNBC. He said if the merger were approved, the combined broadcast stations' news audience would be 2.2 million...or one sixth of one percent of the country....MSNBC says: What is their secret."

Pai has promised to take a weed whacker to some old FCC rules. He offered up some that may have gone under the radar. Under FCC chairman Kevin Martin, there was the "cable industry can kiss our ass rule," he said. Then under chair Tom Wheeler, it was the "broadcast industry must kiss our ass rule."

Talking up the ATSC 3.0 transition, he said it would provide what everyone as looking for—the ability to enjoy [NAB President] Gordon Smith in ultra HD. There was even a repack joke aimed at one of the power players in the auction run-up, former Fox and Disney exec Preston Padden, who advocated on behalf of auction interested stations. Pai said some of the repack expenses broadcasters had submitted were a little sketchy, including $84 million for the "Preston Padden retirement fund."

He even took a gentle-ish swipe at President Trump, whose Justice Department is suing to block the AT&T-Time Warner deal. Pai said that Trump's threat to pull NBC's licenses was a nonstarter with the FCC: "Who do you think we are, the antitrust division."

Related: DOJ Suing to Block AT&T-Time Warner Deal

"In collusion, er conclusion" he said, then aired a video that showed Pai and another Verizon executive plotting 14 years ago to plant a Verizon puppet at the FCC--that would be Pai in the view of net neutrality critics--who was young and ambitious and smart, but sufficiently dorky to pass under the radar, then get a Republican to name him chairman. "And that's how I got here," joked the chair, before ending--per custom--with a serious shout out to staffers.

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.