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Stormy weather ahead for broadcasters

On May 1, 2013, President Obama announced his selection as the next chairman of the FCC, Thomas Wheeler, currently managing director of Core Capital Partners. Let’s consider what skills Mr. Obama might have seen in Mr. Wheeler to make him qualified to head the FCC.

Particularly noteworthy might have been Mr. Wheeler’s skill as an Obama fundraiser. According to, an organization that tracks political donations, Wheeler helped raise $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign and between $200,000 and $500,000 in the 2008 election. Also, he raised money for now Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. So, Wheeler passes muster as a longtime Democrat fundraiser.

Wheeler has also served on Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board since 2011 and advised Obama’s transition team. Visitor logs show he has made numerous visits to the White House in the past five years, attending one-on-one meetings with staff, as well as several holiday receptions with the Obamas. Such activities might help him be perceived as an Obama team player.

But, perhaps the main skill he brings to the FCC is that he’s a serial lobbyist. Wheeler was president and lobbyist for the NCTA from 1979 to 1984, and CEO and lobbyist for the CTIA from 1992 to 2004.

Wrote Obama’s hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, “Obama, who famously in 2007 pledged never to allow lobbyists to ‘run my White House’, joked about Wheeler being ‘the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame’ and highlighted his private-sector success.”

When asked about Wheeler’s background, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller said, “A lobbyist is a lobbyist.”

Could this make Wheeler’s confirmation as FCC chairman an uphill battle?

“All of the senators in the Commerce Committee know Tom as a lobbyist who funnels funds to them, not as a stand-up guy from a regulatory agency who is able to take heat,” said one veteran Washington telecommunications insider, who spoke anonymously because of the political sensitivity of the subject.

So much for the fundraising and political connections. What does Mr. Wheeler think about broadcasters?

In his own blog, he writes, “This brings us to the issue that stands between today and the wireless broadband future … regarding proposals for the FCC to run a voluntary incentive auction that would reallocate broadcast spectrum for broadband wireless purposes. [I said] the future looked bright for entrepreneurial broadcasters, as well as for those who wanted to continue delivering the traditional single-channel linear service — but individual broadcasters have to move beyond ‘we’ve always done it this way’ and decide in which vision of the future they want to participate. When broadcasters ‘just say no’ to any repurposing of the spectrum assigned to them by the government they are exacerbating what could become a national crisis, as well as missing a business opportunity.

When television signals went digital, however, the ability to do so much more with the broadcast capacity opened up. As we approach the second anniversary of the digital conversion, however, broadcasters have done little to support the proposition that they can use the efficiency of broadcasting to satisfy the demand from consumers for flexible video consumption as opposed to when the broadcaster chooses to deliver the program.”

A gold cherry pie.

If I may slightly turn a phrase from Bette Davis playing Margo Channing in the 1950 movie, “All About Eve”: “Fasten your seatbelts, broadcasters. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Additional Resources

  1. VIDEO: Campbell Brown, CNN/Obama speech on no lobbyists: On Nov. 15, 2007, Mr. Obama said [lobbyists] “Would not work in my White House.” On Feb. 2, 2008, he said, “They won’t drown out your voices any more when I am president of the United States...”
  2. VIDEO: State of the nation speech, Jan. 27, 2010: On Jan. 27, 2010, Mr. Obama said “[We] have excluded lobbyists from policy-making jobs and seats on federal boards and commissions.”
  3. VIDEO: Tom Wheeler speech: May 24, 1983, speech, as president of NCTA Tom Wheeler says, “…the must-carry rules are wrong … an anachronism.” He describes his views on must-carry, begin at 33:40
  4. VIDEO: Wheeler 2009 Cable Hall of Fame acceptance speech, 2:57: Tom Wheeler, then president of Core Capital says, “… when I was at NTCA the TV networks were trying to strangle this new idea in the crib, and today one of those companies is buying the peacock network.”
  5. NBC news report 11-11-2008, on President Obama statement of no lobbyists: The transition office said in a statement, “if someone has lobbied in the last 12 months, they are prohibited from working in the fields of policy on which they lobbied.”
  6. Tom Wheeler listed as $500,000 Obama fund raiser: FCC Chairman nominee Tom Wheeler reportedly raised at least $500,000 for Obama, and was a lobbyist for both the NCTA and CTIA.

Brad Dick, editorial director