Come Jan. 20, the FCC will undergo massive change as Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler steps aside, some two weeks after Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel officially vacated her seat as a Commissioner.
That results in an immediate 2-1 GOP-titled FCC, with all eyes on Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, who is largely expected to become Acting Chairman.
Pai can turn to Mignon Clyburn — the lone Democrat standing on the FCC — for tips on how to lead in an interim role.
That’s because Clyburn served as Acting Chairwoman of the FCC following her appointment by President Obama in May 2013. She held interim stripes for five months, and presided over the Commission following the departure of former Chairman Jules Genachowski and Wheeler.
Her rise to Acting Chairwoman also came as the result of Commissioner Robert McDowell’s departure, at the same time as that of Genachowski.
Clyburn was the first woman to hold the role of Chair, even if for an interim period.
What can the FCC expect to legislate as a three-person body?
That’s anyone’s guess, although politically controversial matters — including the media cross-ownership rules and the set-top box — may not get a full review until the two empty seats are filled and a permanent Chairman is named.
In August 2013, with Clyburn presiding, incentive auction updates were the top topic. Given the perceived failure by some observers of the Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auction, presently in Stage 4 of the Reverse Auction, the new FCC may wish to look at the auction’s progress as it pertains to the spectrum repack.
There is also the Nexstar-Media General merger OK, which has become a contentious battle pitting the American Cable Association (ACA) against Nexstar over the issue of a waiver granting the deal’s approval prior to the end of the spectrum auction.
On these contentious items, and more, Clyburn could emerge as the lone dissenting voice following one of the most contentious party-line voting sessions the FCC has ever seen.
Clyburn is in her second term as a Commissioner, and joined the FCC in February 2013. She began her service at the FCC in August 2009, after spending 11 years as a member of the sixth district on the Public Service Commission (PSC) of South Carolina. Clyburn served as its chair from July 2002 through June 2004.
Prior to her service on the PSC, Clyburn served as the co-owner, publisher and GM of Charleston, S.C.-based family-owned African-American weekly The Coastal Times.
As a Commissioner, Clyburn has advocated for “strong competition across all communications platforms,” believing that the more robust and competitive the marketplace, the less need there is for regulation.
However, Clyburn says she is “an outspoken champion for smart, targeted regulatory action” and has pushed for media ownership rules “that reflect the demographics of America.”
In July, Clyburn spoke to the Tribal Radio Summit in Phoenix, noting that more tribal stations exist today than in 2010, when Clyburn supported licensing more such stations through a Tribal Radio Priority in 2010 which prioritizes American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages seeking FM allotments and submitting AM and NCE FM filing window applications.
At the 2016 NAB in Las Vegas, Clyburn posed the question: “What can or should the FCC do to strengthen viewpoint diversity?” in a speech largely focusing on the subject.
But, there is the possibility that Clyburn will see only a few important votes as Commissioner, as her time is running out.
Her term comes to an end on July 31, 2017, at which point no Democrats will be on the FCC unless she stays on and awaits a reconfirmation hearing, similar to what just transpired with Jessica Rosenworcel.
Until then, Clyburn will likely continue to push forward on matters she has advocated for over close to 15 years of public service.
And, she can continue to carry the torch for many of the things Wheeler, who she called the “Bo Jackson of Telecom” in reference to the multi-sport pro athlete of the 1980s.
In comments distributed Thursday, Clyburn called Wheeler “my chairman,” saying that whether you agreed with him or not, “he has made a bold impact on this agency and this ecosystem.”
Maybe we should not really be surprised, she surmised, given his “years of experience with industry, his ability to make tough decisions, and his willingness to fiercely stand up for and protect his client. Fortunately for all of us, since late fall of 2013, the American consumer has been the direct beneficiary of his quest for competition, competition, competition and consumer protection.”
On a personal note, she thanked Wheeler for helping to make her a better Commissioner. “You have both challenged and assisted me to advance key priorities that will continue to make a difference in the lives of millions,” Clyburn said. “Thank you for standing up, speaking out and serving nobly.”
Clyburn can also look back at a tenure as Acting Chairwoman that the MMTC celebrated, saying Clyburn took her role seriously and kept big projects moving.
Thus, while the future is uncertain, advocates of AM Revitalization and the relaxation of foreign ownership limits can rejoice in knowing that Clyburn’s legacy will likely be impactful and of approval to all across Washington, and the broadcast world.