Another Year Over and a New One Just Begun

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 17, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Around this time every year, you typically see an abundance of articles in the trades making predictions about what the FCC will do in the coming year. It has become such a rite of the new year that I've even joked about it in past posts.

This year, however, I have noticed much less predictive commentary about the FCC, and it isn't hard to understand why. 2014 is so far looking like a "to be continued" year, forcing FCC soothsayers to concede that it's hard to say precisely how 2014 will differ markedly from 2013 at the FCC.

For example, 2014 was originally supposed to be the Year of the Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auction. However, after the confusion surrounding the federal Affordable Care Act website demonstrated that "set a deadline to launch and it will surely be figured out by then" might not be the optimal approach to complex government projects, Chairman Wheeler agreed with much of the broadcast industry that it will take more time to get such a complicated undertaking right. As a result, he announced last month that the auction is now likely a mid-2015 event. While buying health insurance is indeed complicated, it is ditch-digging compared to designing the Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auction (official motto: "The Broadcast Spectrum Auction--Making quantum mechanics look easy since 2010").

Similarly, Chairman Wheeler also last month took media ownership proposals being considered internally at the FCC under the prior Chairman off the table in order to give a "fresh look" at the FCC's media ownership rules. By statute, the FCC is required to review its media ownership rules every four years and eliminate any that are no longer in the public interest. The tabled proposals were part of the still-in-process 2010 quadrennial review, increasing the likelihood that the 2010 proceeding will now be rolled into the 2014 quadrennial review (official motto: "It's 2014 already?").

So does this mean 2014 will be boring for media watchers? Not at all. First, one reason for the dearth of breathless predictions is the relatively recent arrival of Chairman Wheeler. A new Chairman can bring many surprises, and as he has succeeded so far in holding many of his cards close to his vest, it's too early to tell just what all may be on his 2014 wish list. What he will do in 2014 therefore remains more a matter of speculation than prediction, leading many prognosticators to hold back for the moment.

Second, even if 2014 ends up being a quiet year of incremental change at the FCC, there is plenty to keep things interesting on the media front outside of the FCC. First and foremost, last week's announcement that the Supreme Court is jumping into the Aereo fray ensures that there will be some dramatic developments in 2014. Similarly, the 2014 elections promise to be a significant event for many media outlets, both in terms of bringing political ad dollars through the door while affecting the political balance of a Congress that has promised a rewrite of the Communications Act of 1934 in the next few years.

While such events will create an interesting 2014 regardless of what the FCC has on its menu, it's meeting the daily deadlines that keeps media businesses going, and meeting the legal deadlines that keep broadcasters in particular operating. For example, while the state by state radio license renewal application filing cycle concludes in 2014, the TV renewal cycle continues on throughout this year and into 2015.

One way, however, that 2014 will differ from 2013 is that October 1, 2014 marks the every-three-years deadline for TV stations to send their must-carry/retransmission consent elections to cable and satellite carriers. Given the growing importance of retrans dollars for broadcasters, and the fact that, at least with regard to cable, a failure to make an election results in a default election of must-carry, these elections are critically important (in contrast, note that failure to send an election to DirecTV or Dish leads to the opposite result, a default election of retransmission consent, just to make it as confusing as possible).

To help broadcasters navigate the less-exciting but still critically important deadlines that keep their licenses intact, at the end of 2013 we published the 2014 edition of our annual Broadcasters' Calendar. It can be found on the right side of the CommLawCenter main page, as well as at the Communications Publications section of Pillsburylaw.com.

Also, to stay up to date on industry events, keep an eye on our main page Interactive Calendar, as we upload numerous 2014 industry events, including NAB shows, state broadcasters associations conventions, and Pillsbury seminars and webinars on a variety of communications-related subjects. Predicting may be more fun, but knowing your regulatory deadlines keeps the lights on. Regardless, as 2014 reveals itself, I have little doubt that there will be a lot to talk about, and make predictions about, here at CommLawCenter.

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