Obama expected to name FCC chairman

Julius Genachowski is president-elect's likely appointee

NEW YORK -- The Obama administration's likely FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, won't have much time to get settled, with big issues like the digital transition looming on the horizon.

Industry execs on Tuesday lauded Genachowski's experience -- including a stint at Barry Diller's IAC and a prior stay with the FCC -- and noted his close relationship with President-elect Barack Obama from their days at Harvard Law School.

"I don't think we have had an FCC chairman who is this close to the president for a while," said one Washington rep of a major media company. "It sends a strong signal to our industry that they care about us." Genachowski, whose appointment must be confirmed by the Senate, is likely to bring a more collaborative approach and more digital media savvy to a commission often maligned in recent years amid's current FCC chairman Kevin Martin's bitter battles with Hollywood.

"He (would be) the first guy in this position who really understands new media. It's exactly what the FCC needs right now," said Jon Miller, the former AOL CEO who overlapped with Genachowski at IAC and has since worked with him on early stage media companies. "He listens well, processes and synthesizes information tremendously and then makes practical decisions." The ante for what would already be a high-profile appointment at the top of the FCC was upped last week when the Obama transition team asked Congress to delay the Feb. 17 digital TV transition deadline.

"He should be able to hit the ground running," said Andrew Lipman, a media/telecom lawyer and partner at Washington-based Bingham McCutchen. "It's going to take up the predominant amount of the commission's attention over the next several months, whether or not the deadline is extended."

Only Congress can change the date, which was settled upon in 2005, but the FCC will be dealing with the transition and the aftermath.

Beyond that, industry sources expect Genachowski early on will focus on boosting broadband coverage in the U.S. to bring the country closer to more advanced nations. The issue of broadband deployment is also wrapped up in the incoming administration's economic stimulus plan. The FCC will likely have a big say in how money is dispersed and how geography and competition will be managed. 

In another key Web issue, Genachowski has been known to support Net neutrality. Genachowski's good reputation stems in part from his experience on different sides of the media, Internet and telecom business.

Most recently, he was an Obama adviser on media and telecom issues during the election campaign and a big fundraiser, and he wrote most of the campaign's telecom and media policy. He has been a key member of the transition team since Obama's victory, serving as co-leader of the team's technology, innovation and government reform group. Genachowski previously was also considered a front-runner for the planned post of a chief technology officer in the Obama administration.

Genachowski got plenty of FCC experience when he served as chief counsel to Clinton-era FCC boss Reed Hundt in the 1990s. Plus, he helped Barry Diller grow his IAC/InterActiveCorp in senior executive posts between 1997 and 2005.

Before joining the Obama campaign, Genachowski co-founded Rock Creek Ventures, where he has continued to invest in, advise and launch digital media and commerce businesses as a managing partner. He has also served on the boards of such companies as Ticketmaster, the Motley Fool, Beliefnet (now owned by News Corp.) and Truveo (now part of Time Warner's AOL).

Plus, the father of three is a founding board member of Common Sense Media, which focuses on parental education and control issues. While he would need to be confirmed by the Senate, Genachowski's positions are relatively clear. Wild cards could be his stance on media-ownership rule changes and how far his FCC would take the issue of broadcast indecency, which the agency has emphasized in recent years.

"As a devoted dad, he will always take the interests of parents and kids into consideration when important decisions are made at the FCC," Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer said in an interview. However, he said he expects Genachowski to avoid ideological fervor. "Our motto is 'sanity, not censorship,'" he said. "Julius is a First Amendment scholar and will be a great voice for sanity." NAB CEO David Rehr said Genachowski has "a keen intellect, a passion for public service and a deep understanding of the important role that free and local broadcasting plays in American life."

Issues of broadcast indecency are popularly thought to be more Republican than Democrat, but that's not true. The renewed FCC efforts weren't just the initiative of Martin but also Democratic FCC member Michael Copps. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller is also tough on indecency. "It's hard to tell what will happen" to indecency regulations, Bingham's Lipman said. "Indecency has never really lent itself to pure partisanship. It crosses over party lines." Either way, Genachowski and the Obama administration in general are not likely to affect the Fox vs. the FCC indecency case, which is being taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, media-ownership rules, the subject of numerous hearings and court cases during the past few years, could get a new look from Genachowski, observers predict. But no one wanted to predict whether some of the FCC's rules on broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership are likely to be reversed under the Obama team. While expert see Genachowski -- like Obama -- favoring diversity, the economy and technological stresses on media companies could make the FCC less opposed to past or future media deals than some expect. One final difference between Genachowski and Martin would be receptivity to a re-enactment of the Fairness Doctrine, a pet cause of some Democrats. There's already been talk that the doctrine, which led to the rise in conservative talk radio, could be revisited.

GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced bills banning a return of the Fairness Doctrine from being taken up, although they are unlikely to move far in the Democratic-controlled Congress. More likely is a shift in the way broadcast licenses are handed out and changing their terms, such as shortening license dates and adding requirements.