Telecom Prom Highlights: Title II Jokes, Cable Merger Jabs, Dumping on Trump

WASHINGTON — By the time Tom Wheeler was done addressing the 29th annual Federal Communications Bar Association chairman’s dinner, lobbyists, lawyers and media executives had been good and skewered. Or, in keeping with the sports analogies that predominated, they’d been bounced, rejected and stuffed.

Cable operators were frequent targets, particularly given that the Washington Hilton dinner was held on Dec. 3, the night before the oral argument in the legal challenge against the FCC’s reclassification of Internet-service providers under Title II common-carrier regulations.

Speakers at these kinds of events often credit their families. Wheeler thanked “the light of my life, the person who inspires me every day to keep fighting and do better: Judge David Tatel.” Tatel, one of the three U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit judges who heard the arguments on Friday, also was on the first panel that remanded the old rules back to the FCC.

Wheeler said Uber had already declared that surge pricing would be in effect following the dinner. National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell “blames it on Title II.” Blaming things on Title II was a running joke throughout. Powell, in attendance, took it all in good humor.

The biggest cable company caught much topical flak. It’s a custom at the dinner “to drink as much wine as you want,” Wheeler said. Pointing out the Comcast table, the chairman added: “Waiters, pay attention. If they want more wine, it’s $35 a bottle. And don’t consider it a wine cap. Just think of it as a wine usage plan.”

Cable-owned sports teams were fair game, too. “Of course, there was the bid by Comcast to acquire Time Warner Cable, which failed. But we should not feel too bad for Comcast. They still own the Philadelphia 76ers.” A big screen displayed a headline about the team’s 27-game losing streak. Groans abounded.

Guess what a top Comcast executive blames for the Sixers’ failure. Right: “David Cohen blames Title II.”

Wheeler later said Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, who died earlier this year, was one of those who’d changed the communications landscape and the nation for the better and “would be missed.”

Charter Communications took a big and humorous hit. After the FCC helped crater Comcast’s bid, Charter agreed to buy TWC, a deal currently before the commission.

“I know rebound relationships work out sometimes, but could it be a little soon?” he asked. “I mean, I just worry that if Time Warner gets hurt, they could just lock themselves in their room, listen to Adele, eat ice cream straight out of the carton and read John Malone’s old love letters.”

As for Altice’s proposed acquisition of Cablevision Systems, Wheeler noted the Dolan family will continue to control some of their most famous assets: “The New York Knicks, The Walking Dead … Oh, I’m repeating myself.”

His most pointed jab may have been at Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen’s expense. Referring to the “Have an Affair” website, Wheeler said: “Speaking of hooking up, Ashley Madison,” Wheeler said, referring to the affair site. “Ashley Madison got hacked, revealing the names of millions of people looking for relationships. Poor Charlie Ergen signed up; no one responded,” he said, to general groans from the room. Ergen’s swings and misses at the FCC include rejection of a proposed 2002 merger with DirecTV’s parent company.

Verizon just didn’t seem as funny as Comcast or AT&T, the chairman added. Except. “That time that Verizon got the Open Internet rules thrown out, and then came back a year later to advocate for the same thing that had been overturned — now that was hilarious.”

Democrat Wheeler also took some shots at the Republican presidential front-runner. “Donald Trump released his spectrum plan the other day. No more guard bans to cut down interference. Instead, he’s going to build a wall. Mexico will pay for it.” And in the ultimate combination of spectrum and politics, “Trump is a very big proponent of white spaces.”

Pause, followed by groans and applause.

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.