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Wheeler Hearing HitsHost of Hot-Button Issues

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) praised FCC nominee Tom Wheeler for his forthright and thoughtful answers at his nomination hearing last week. However, some of Wheeler’s frank responses also undoubtedly raised broadcasters’ blood pressure, and one could affect his prospects of succeeding Julius Genachowski as commission chairman.

Broadcasters have been asking the FCC not to rush the broadcast spectrum incentive auctions, and to put the emphasis on getting them done right rather than simply done. Wheeler told Rockefeller he thinks it’s imperative to expedite the auctions, adding that he considers the year-end 2014 deadline to still be doable— something broadcasters aren’t so sure about.

But even as Wheeler expressed that confidence, he also described the auctions as a neverbefore- tried Rubik’s Cube-like puzzle. He said it would be incredibly difficult for the FCC to try to incentivize broadcasters to give up spectrum and make it attractive to wireless companies or whoever bids, while “on an almost real-time basis you have to have a band plan that is constantly changing to reflect the variables.” He added, “That is why this has never been tried before.”

Wheeler said he supports the market evolution that saw broadcasters being compensated for their signals. But he also sent the signal that what he doesn’t like—something the commission “needs to be attuned to”—is “when consumers are held hostage over corporate disputes.” If confirmed as FCC chair, he said he plans to look at that particular issue.

Nomination Runs on Cruz Control

While Rockefeller said he was sure Wheeler would be confirmed, any single senator has the power to block a nomination, as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) did last year with the nominations of commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai. In this case, an opposing senator appears to be Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who asked Wheeler whether he thinks the FCC has authority “to implement the DISCLOSE Act or otherwise regulate political speech.” Some Hill Democrats have pushed the FCC to step in to boost onair disclosures of ads by PACs and other groups.

Wheeler said he needs to learn more about the issue, but Cruz was not ready to move on. The senator asked Wheeler to submit an answer in writing to the question, and followed up with a warning: “This is the one issue that, in my opinion, has the potential to derail your nomination.”

On other topics, Wheeler said that as a grandfather, he sometimes sees things on TV containing either violence or indecency that make him stop and wonder whether he wants the youngsters watching. But he said the courts have been “pretty specific and restrictive,” and suggested relying on the bully pulpit approach adopted by Newton Minow, FCC chair in the early 1960s. “I do believe that it is possible to call upon our better angels with some leadership,” Wheeler said. He explicitly said he was drawing a distinction between taking regulatory action and using the FCC post to urge restraint, but the impression may have been different. “I remember Newton Minow talking about television’s ‘vast wasteland,’” Wheeler said. “He did that without regulatory authority. He caught the public’s attention. Maybe it’s possible to do the same kind of thing today and say: ‘Can’t we do better?’”

Rockefeller has not set a committee vote on Wheeler. Requests for written responses are not due from Wheeler until June 25, and it’s unlikely the vote will occur before the July 4 break. The full Senate will not vote until a GOP nominee for the seat of Robert McDowell is vetted by the committee.

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