Wheeler Slams, Dunks Media

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler took to the dais at the Federal Communications Bar Association Chairman's dinner Thursday night (Dec. 3) at the Washington Hilton ballroom and when he was done, lobbyists, lawyers and media executives had been good and skewered, or in keeping with the sports analogies that predominated, bounced, rejected and stuffed.

Cable operators were squarely in the chairman's sights, particularly given that the dinner was held on the eve of the oral argument in ISP's (and others) challenge of the FCC's reclassification of ISPs under Title II common carrier regs. The three-judge panel hearing that argument Friday includes Judge David Tatel, who was on the first panel that remanded the old rules back to the FCC for more work.

Speakers often give a shout out to their families, which Wheeler capitalized on for good effect. "And Of course a special thanks to the light of my life," he said gently. "The person who inspires me every day to keep fighting and do better: Judge David Tatel."

Wheeler said that uber had announced there would be "surge" pricing following the dinner, adding: "[National Cable & Telecommunications Association President] Michael Powell blames it on Title II." Someone blaming something on Title II was a running joke throughout the almost 40-minute industry roast. But Powell, who was in attendance, was a good sport.

Powell was among those featured in a fake ad Wheeler had prepared. "As a former venture capital investor – all these ads for FanDuel and DraftKings [they were both faux sponsors of the dinner, one of Wheeler's running gags] got me smelling opportunity," said Wheeler. "Tonight, I’d like to announce a new business venture: it’s a daily fantasy league for the FCBA. We call it FantaCBA. Here’s how it works. You pick up actual members of the communications bar and watch them rack up points for everything from court cases won to hours billed to footnotes inserted into orders."

Among those shown endorsing the site was Powell: "I picked Jonathan Sallet this week, so no matter what happens tomorrow, I'm a winner," he quipped, a reference to the FCC general counsel who will be arguing for the rules and against NCTA's position.

Wheeler had hardly gotten warmed up when he turned his attention to Comcast, which had a table at the dinner. Wheeler said the custom at the dinner was "to drink as much wine as you want." Then he asked: "Where's the Comcast table," then repeated himself and scanned the crowd. When the table had identified itself, the chairman went to work.

"Waiters, pay attention. If they want more wine, it's 35 dollars a bottle. And don’t consider it a wine cap. Just think of it as a wine usage plan."

But he was not done. "Of course there was the bid by Comcast to acquire Time Warner Cable, which failed. But we should not feel to bad for Comcast. They still own the Philadelphia 76'ers (the screen in the ballroom displayed a headline on the team's record 27-game losing streak] to groans from the audience--either Sixers fans or Comcast fans, it was not clear which. "Twenty-seven straight losses," said Wheeler, drawing out each word, then added "David Cohen blames Title II, a reference to the top Comcast exec. Editor's note. Comcast no longer owns the Sixers.

But at the end of his speech, Wheeler included Comcast's late founder Ralph Roberts, who died earlier this year, among those who had changed the communications landscape and the nation for the better and who "would be missed."

Charter also took a big, humorous, hit. He pointed out that after the Comcast deal fell through (the FCC provided a healthy push in that direction), Charter reached its own deal with Time Warner--currently before the commission. Wheeler said he knew how rebound relationships worked, and maybe it was a little too soon. "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."

He also took aim at Altice's proposed purchase of Cablevision. He said the Dolan family will continue to control some of Cablevision's most famous assets: The New York Knicks, The Walking Dead, oh, I'm repeating myself."

But perhaps Wheeler's most pointed jab was aimed at Dish chairman Charlie Ergen. "Speaking of hooking up, Ashley Madison," he 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.

Wheeler said Verizon just didn't seem as funny as Comcast or AT&T, but then said: "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."

The FCC's Enforcement Bureau has taken criticism from Republicans on the Hill and at the FCC recently for a string of enforcement actions and settlements. Wheeler had some fun with that. Showing a headline on screen saying Christmas lights could be slowing WiFi and the government was investigating, he said that Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc had "fined Santa and announced an investigation of the elves."

Democrat Wheeler took some shots at Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump. "Donald Trump released his spectrum plan the other day. No more guard bands to cut down interference. Instead, he's going to build a wall. Mexico will pay for it....Also, Trump is a very big proponent of white spaces." There was a pause, then groans and applause.

Wheeler closed his speech with a parody of the Night Before Christmas, complete with wing chair, globe and fireplace backdrop as props, and donning a red satin robe.

'Twas the night before argument, and back at his home,
My poor general counsel sits, fretting alone;
The statute is hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that it gives him author’ty to spare;

While you all are here for FCBA,
Trying to find some new clients that pay,
The brave Mr. Sallet does not make a peep,
As he wonders if he’ll ever fall fast asleep-

Then out on Jon’s lawn there arose such a clatter,
He sprang from his desk to see what was the matter.
When, what to his skeptical eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight mighty rein-deer,

With a majestic driver, so lively and quick,
Jon knew at this moment that he was in slick.
The reindeer were called out by name:
On Markey! On Eshoo! And Etsy the same!

On Tumblr! Free Press and ACLU!
On Yelp, on Twitter and ALA too!
On Google and Facebook – oh what’s that you say?
Oh well, they must have been busy that day….

Down the chimney the driver came quick, as he yelled:
“I am the all-powerful force…Harold Feld!”
“I am an intervenor and I’ve come with amici,
We are here to keep the Net open and free,

A bundle of case law he flung off his back,
With passages ordered in line of attack.
He stroked the beard on his chin (which was not white as snow),
And set out how he thought the argument should go.

Then with a wink of his eye, a twist of his head,
Back to the roof, no more he said.

Friends, that is the story I brought you to share,
Of course, none of us know how tomorrow will fare,
But in keeping with the joyous spirit we see tonight,
Happy arguments to all, … but the left is in the right!

PS: I would have included a photo of the chairman in his silk jacket, but the FCBA declined to make any of its photos available for publication.

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.