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Senate Democrats Seek Pai Recusal, IG Investigation

Pai office brands it last-ditch political ploy

Reprinted from Broadcasting & Cable.

Some Senate Democrats are making a final effort to block the planned Nov. 16 vote to roll back some broadcast ownership regulations, tying it to a Senate request for the FCC inspector general to look into FCC Ajit Pai’s handling of the Sinclair-Tribune merger. (A couple of House Democrats have already called for such an investigation).

The Senators (more than a dozen) want the chairman to recuse himself from the media ownership vote as well as the ATSC 3.0 framework vote, also scheduled for Thursday, saying they had questions about his impartiality. Both votes impact Sinclair in that it the deregulation could lessen the need for deal spinoffs and Sinclair is a big backer of ATSC 3.), including owning a handful of patents.

The FCC is proposing to launch the voluntary rollout of the ATSC 3.0 advanced transmission standard, and on ownership front to eliminate cross-ownership rules and allow for more multiple local station market ownership in smaller and large markets.

If Pai were to recuse himself, the media ownership vote would almost certainly be a 2–2 political deadlock, and likely the ATSC 3.0 vote as well given that Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel wants the FCC to go back to the drawing board on ATSC 3.0, and Democrat Mignon Clyburn Wednesday took aim at both in a statement, saying of the FCC majority’s expected vote to approve both: “They will make it more difficult for low-income Americans to access affordable communications services; they will adopt a so-called ‘voluntary’ television standard that has even more outstanding and unanswered questions than the February Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.”

“This request is absurd on its face and nothing more than a last-ditch attempt by those desperate to block innovation in the broadcast industry and modernization of the FCC’s outdated broadcast ownership rules,” a spokesperson for the chairman said of the Hill Dems’ recusal effort.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which is a big backer of both the ownership deregulation and ATSC 3.0 rollout, avoided direct criticism of the Hill move, but made it clear the vote should proceed with Pai in the center seat.

“The actions proposed by Chairman Pai and supported by the NAB and scores of broadcasters have industry-wide implications with a profound impact that is broader than any one company,” said NAB President Gordon Smith. “”For decades, the broadcast industry has asked the FCC to modernize its media ownership rules, and NAB itself petitioned the FCC to allow broadcasters to innovate and voluntarily employ a Next Gen TV standard, advocated for the elimination of the main studio rule and urged a holistic approach to the UHF discount.”

The senators actually sent two letters, one to inspector general David Hunt, calling for the investigation and one to Pai calling for him to recuse himself.

They also want the FCC to stop the clock on its review of the Sinclair merger until the FCC inspector general completed the investigation.

There were 13 signing the letter seeking the recusals and 15 on the letter requesting the IG investigation, the same 13, plus the addition of Sens. Corey Booker (N.J.) and Catherine Cortez-Masto (Nev.). Signing both letters were Sens. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Al Franken (Minn.), Pat Leahy (Vt.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ron Wyden (Ore.).