Embattled Pai gets a respite at friendly NAB keynote

At an appearance at NAB, Ajit Pai broadly celebrated his agency's dismantling of decades of work regulating the TV and radio broadcast industries. (Daniel Frankel/FierceCable)

LAS VEGAS—After cancelling a Las Vegas appearance three months earlier for CES due to reported threats on his life, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai was warmly embraced Tuesday afternoon by broadcasters at NAB. 

Indeed, relationships between regulators and industries don’t get much cozier.

“You’ve been very supportive, even when times are tough,” Pai told the standing, applauding crowd, tearing up a little at one point. “Thank you for being there for me and for us when it counted. I’ll never forget it.”

While Pai has received national heat for rolling back his predecessor’s net neutrality regulations, he has also steadily delivered to NAB constituents pretty much everything they’ve asked for. After a fawning introduction by NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith, who billed the Parsons, Kansas-raised Republican as a broadcast- and free-market-loving populist, Pai used much of his afternoon speech to recap all of the regulatory dismantling he's done on behalf of broadcasters, framing it all under the auspices of modernization. 

“At the FCC, I see it as our job to create a regulatory environment that enables you to keep doing great work like this,” he told the Convention Center Main Stage crowd. “A big part of that is modernizing our media rules to match the marketplace and technology of today. That’s required a lot of work. For most of these rules were written during the analog era, at a time when Amazon was nothing more than a river and (the homonym) “googol” was nothing more than a really big number. Each of our decisions has presented a basic philosophical choice about moving forward or looking backward. And on each, we’ve made the right choice—for broadcasters and consumers alike.”

Pai touted the FCC’s approval of the ATSC 3.0 standard:

“You either believe broadcasters should be allowed to innovate, or you don’t. And we do,” he said. “So last November, the FCC adopted rules authorizing the Next Gen TV transmission standard. By allowing use of this standard on a voluntary, market-driven basis, we’ve opened the door to a substantially improved, free, over-the-air television broadcast service and fiercer competition in the video marketplace.”

Repeating the theme, he then tubthumped the FCC’s wiping away of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban:

“You either believe in rules that match the modern marketplace, or you don’t.  And we do,” Pai said. “So last year, we also approved a long-overdue update to our media ownership rules. One of them was ending the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban—a ban that was adopted in 1975. With the proliferation of online news sources, cable TV and more, the idea that a company could dominate a media market by owning a broadcast station and a newspaper is utter nonsense.”

He celebrated his agency's rollback of the main studio rule:

“You either believe in extending broadcast service to more communities, or you don’t. And we do,” the commissioner noted, continuing to rhetorically hammer away. “That’s why we scrapped the 'main studio’ rule, which predated World War II. The rule’s purpose was to allow community input and public access to the station’s inspection file. But these days, people contact broadcasters through the Internet or over the phone, and the public file is now online. Ending this rule gives broadcasters greater flexibility without sacrificing transparency or community engagement. And it’s already making it easier for broadcasters to add new service or maintain existing service in rural communities. I’ve heard this firsthand, including just last week when visiting with Flinn Broadcasting in Memphis. 

Finally, he broadly celebrated his agency's dismantling of decades of work regulating the TV and radio broadcast industries.

“You either believe in scrapping outdated regulations or you don’t. And we do,” he added. “You may recall that at this very show last year, I announced we were launching a comprehensive review of our 1,000-plus pages of media regulations to identify rules that needed to be updated or repealed altogether. We call this our 'Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative.' We’ve already launched eight separate rulemakings as a result of this effort, and we’ll start more in the coming months. In particular, Commissioner O’Rielly is now leading an effort to update our children’s television rules so that they better reflect the way that kids watch video these days, and I look forward to getting his recommendations.”  

Seeking analogy from the art world, Pai then compared the FCC’s collective work on broadcast deregulation to French impressionist Georgest Seurat.

“Seurat was a master of pointillism, a technique in which the artist makes tiny colorful dots in patterns to create a larger image,” Pai explained. “When you look at all of our media decisions together, the larger picture becomes clear: we are simply allowing any and every broadcaster the ability to compete in a free market, unshackled by regulations that no longer make sense.”

Editor’s note: We might have chosen Jackson Pollack instead.