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New FCC Chief Julius Genachowski: Grilled

TheWrap sat down with new Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski at his four-week mark to ask him about his plans for the FCC.

(More Genachowski, Plus Video Tour of His Office)

 

Everyone seems to regard you as someone who “gets it.” You led the Obama campaign’s technology task force, which was all about New Media. So what different approaches are you taking with the FCC at a time at a time of such massive transformation?
The first thing is to take seriously the changes in the media landscape and how they affect the important goals for the country.

In the recovery act passed in February, Congress entrusted the FCC with responsibility for developing a national broadband strategy. We should have had such a strategy 10 years ago — we are falling behind on connectivity and speed.

Why does it matter?

This is our generation’s major infrastructure challenge — it is to us what railroads and electricity and highways were to previous generations: connecting all Americans for commerce, a platform for commercial activity and for entrepreneurs to start and grow.

 

It also is a platform to promote a whole series of public benefits that we have always regarded as important: connectivity for news and information, making sure that everyone has access to health care, education.

How active should the government be in all this?
There are two core pieces that I think are appropriate to focus on. One is universality — making sure that everyone has access to high-speed broadband.

The other is openness. The openness of the internet has been an essential part of its success so far. It’s why so many new businesses have started on the web. It’s been the greatest force for innovation that we have ever seen, in both commercial enterprises and services that are important to our democracy — new forms of information, new forms of journalism, new forms of connecting people, new sources of content.

Where do you stand on indecency?
Parents have real concerns about the media that their kids are exposed to. As a parent, I share those concerns.

When we were kids, we had a couple of TVs in the house, and we got a few over-the-air broadcast channels. My parents could think about what rules they wanted to set: How many hours of week should we watch and which channels. Parents today are looking at a very different world.

There’s still the TV in the house, but it gets a lot more channels. Parents are also thinking that, well, there is a computer over there, and I want my kids to be doing their homework and to have access to all this information — but there are things about it that concern me.

They worry about the mobile phone in kids’ pockets. I want to be able to reach my kid. I want my kid to have a phone in case of emergency. But I’m also worried about the device that these kids carry around.

So parents feel a lot of frustration. But I’m an optimist about the ability of technology to address some of these issues and empower these parents. I’m also hopeful that the changing landscape will create new business models for giving parents something to choose. Because there is dramatically more shelf space, there is the opportunity for niche programming that you didn’t have in broadcast.

Doesn’t that all suggest the opposite? You can find more bad things on the web.
This is the challenge. We know our internet infrastructure can promote innovation, creativity, job creation and all sorts of things that will benefit our society. We also know that it can generate things that are problematic. We need to find a way to have universal broadband, have it provide the benefits and to empower individuals to say, “I can manage this and pick the things I want and have some control over some of the things I don’t want.”

Would you agree that the V-chip is a dismal failure?
The data I’ve seen is that many people don’t know that they have it in their TVs, and the usage isn’t particularly high.

So is it a failure?
I would agree we need to ask about that and about various tools that exist to empower parents.

The broadcasting industry argues that with all these new platforms opening up, why should they have to play by old rules that don’t apply to anyone else? Shouldn’t you either open it up for them or apply the same standards to other platforms?
We need to find what are the solutions for the 21st century. The First Amendment is incredibly important, and we need a landscape that respects and honors the First Amendment. It would be ideal if we could harness technology to focus on these goals.

Does the FCC have the authority it needs over cable and internet to deal with this?
It’s one of the questions we will be asking. The FCC has broad general authority to promote the public interest when it comes to communications, networks and devices. In any specific area, we would have to be part of the process to determine exactly what the scope is.

What about indecency. What about violence? On the web and on cable, should the FCC have more authority over that?
The FCC should — and will — get its arms around what is going on and how it affects kids. On the objectionable-content part of it — the phrase in the Child Safe Viewing Act — that’s an inquiry already proceeding at the FCC.

 

There is market experience relevant to figure out what are a smart set of strategies going forward. There is experience around broadcast television. There is experience around cable. There is experience around the internet. There is experience around mobile. There is experience around videogames.

I don’t think the FCC has yet looked at that and said, What have we learned? What does this mean for a sensible policy that protects kids and empowers parents, promotes child health and education and honors the First Amendment?

What parents expect is that they will have the tools and services they need to exercise their responsibilities with respect to their kids.

Could the FCC V-chip like technology be made available for cable and the internet?
I don’t know whether there will be or won’t be. The first step is to look gather the facts, be really clear about what the values are that we want to promote and ask what the best ideas are to satisfy these goals.

You are going to be hearing concern from Hollywood over the squeezing out of independent production on television. There is no model on the internet that really works for entertainment programming. There has been some thought that the FCC consider imposing some minimum requirement for independent content.
Finding ways to make sure that we have strong and vibrant independent creative content in this country is important. It’s one of the reasons behind the universal broadband effort. While the business models haven’t jelled, there is no question that an always-on broadband service — one that everyone in the country has access to — will create more opportunities for independent producers than a distribution network that only serves part of the country.

There are many things that broadband can do, but strengthening the ability of independent producers to generate creative programming is important.

What do you see when you watch TV, as an engaged parent?
I have less time to watch TV at home than I used to, and the first thing I watch at home are the films that my wife [documenatrian Rachel Goslins] is working on.

What is your sense of the state of our popular culture?
I think there is ongoing evidence that we have incredibly creative talented people in the country producing programming. There’s also evidence for the feeling that there are thousands of channels and nothing to watch.

Are you concerned about the lack of content on local TV and disappearing news?
Local information and content has been a core objective spanning many different administrations for decades. Americans value local information, local news, local emergency alerts, local weather, local sports.

I’m concerned about what’s going on in local reporting — the cutback on local news, the struggle in newspapers. The shutting down of newspapers is not healthy to a democracy … I don’t think anyone is happy about a world where that goes away.”

Should the government have a role in supporting that?
It’s a good question. We haven’t announced what we will do in the area, but it’s impossible to look at the landscape and not be concerned about what is going on in local news.