FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker made the surprise announcement yesterday that she will leave the FCC on June 3 to become Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at NBC-Universal. Baker’s departure will leave Commissioner Robert McDowell as the only Republican Commissioner at the FCC for the time being. It is unlikely that President Obama will be in any hurry to name a replacement, leaving Democrats with a 3-1 political advantage at the FCC once Baker leaves. Her departure comes as a surprise because, although her current term at the FCC is up in June, she was expected to be nominated for another term.
It certainly appears to have caught her colleagues at the Commission by surprise, all of whom quickly released very brief statements of congratulations. Despite the warm wishes from her colleagues, the brevity of those statements makes clear that they didn’t have much time to prepare them.
This being Washington, DC, the Commissioner’s move did not come without controversy. The trade press reported that many found it disconcerting that the Commissioner was joining NBC-Universal just a few months after voting in favor of Comcast’s contested multi-billion dollar purchase of that company. For example, Free Press’s website reports that Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron has stated that “Less than four months after Commissioner Baker voted to approve Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal, she’s reportedly departing the FCC to lobby for Comcast-NBC. This is just the latest — though perhaps most blatant — example of a so-called public servant cashing in at a company she is supposed to be regulating.”
Others, including National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Gordon Smith, publicly supported the Commissioner’s move, stating in a news release that “With a winning combination of integrity, intellect and experience, Meredith Baker will be a key player for NBCUniversal, and I know that her in-depth knowledge of broadcast issues, deep understanding of the D.C. landscape and strong leadership abilities will make her an important resource for the entire broadcast industry.” Indeed, Commissioner Baker’s excellent reputation in Washington, earned at both the NTIA and the FCC, will do much to deflect, although certainly not silence, criticism regarding the timing of the move.
The eventual appointment of the Commissioner’s replacement is likely to be a hotly debated issue, with such big ticket items as net neutrality, spectrum auctions, the potential repacking of broadcast spectrum, and retransmission consent battles on the FCC’s plate. Unlike Commissioner Baker’s surprise announcement yesterday, however, it is a surprise to no one that the political maneuvering in Washington over the future composition of the FCC has already begun in earnest.