With the Democrats taking control of the House when the new session starts Jan. 3, lawmakers and media players are re-adjusting their strategies and preparing for a slew of new hearings and investigations.
Democrats have already started to circle their wagons around Nexstar’s proposed purchase of Tribune Media, with Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, saying in a statement Monday that the merger “would undoubtedly lead to mass layoffs in newsrooms at a time when our free and diverse press is already under assault.”
Last week, a group of 14 organizations wrote to representatives poised to head two influential House committees asking them to hold hearings into the proposed merger of T-Mobile and SoftBank-backed Sprint, a combination that has been scuttled on the Hill before.
The letter, addressed to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., incoming House Judiciary Committee chair, and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee chair, urged them to name a date in the first quarter next year to hold hearings on the merger.
Spearheaded by Public Knowledge, a nonprofit based in Washington, and made up of the Communications Workers of America and the Writers Guild of America West, among others, the group said Congress should “examine the single largest pending wireless telecommunications merger, and one of the largest in the nation’s history.”
It would be an “excellent first step to implementing your vision for stronger antitrust enforcement, protecting consumers, promoting competition, and standing up for American workers,” wrote the group in its letter.
There have been no hearings in the House to examine the effects of the merger of the third- and fourth- largest phone giants. But, while the House can put pressure on regulators, it can’t actually prevent a merger, said Gigi Sohn, a former counselor at the Federal Communications Commission and the co-founder of Public Knowledge.
“Sprint/T-Mobile is in front of the FCC and the Department of Justice and is going to get a hearing,” Sohn projected.
Meanwhile, other media players said concerns about Sprint shareholder SoftBank and its connections to Saudi Arabia could muddy the waters, as well as potential national security issues pertaining to SoftBank’s ties to China’s Huawei Technologies.
The T-Mobile/Sprint merger isn’t the only media-related business that will get come under intense scrutiny from the House.
Over the past two years, the FCC has loosened media regulations — throwing out restrictions on station group audience caps, allowing ownership of multiple TV stations in big cities and, controversially, tossing out net neutrality rules.
In the next few weeks, the government regulator will begin a wholesale review of media law, something it does every four years — but this time there's likely to be a lot more opposition than normal.
“I think the background definitely changes with a flip of the House. There is going to be more oversight, probably some attempts to draw up legislation,” said former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, now an adviser to watchdog group Common Cause.
“I think the background definitely changes with a flip of the House. There is going to be more oversight."
"There was no real oversight,” said former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, now a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution. “They sat there and said take your wrecking ball and we’ll support you,” he told NBC News, characterizing the lack of interaction between current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Congress.
That's all set to change in 2019, with several high-profile issues on the docket right out of the gate, from privacy to 5G to antitrust.
After the New York Times bombshell report on Facebook and the agencies it used to hurt critics, the social network is likely one of the biggest targets. Pallone already has Facebook in his crosshairs, tweeting last month that CEO Mark Zuckerberg's company was more interested in “covering their own hide” than being transparent with Congress. He’s not the only one. Cicilline, who is also a member of the subcommittee on communications and technology, ominously tweeted last month that “Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself.”
Additionally, while the Senate will not be under the control of Democrats come the new Congress, its members are working hard to make life difficult for Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, both under intense scrutiny from both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is working with Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Coon, D-Del., to request that the Justice Department expand any investigation into Facebook to understand if they retaliated against critics or public officials who were trying to regulate it.
Broadcast station ownership
Flush with political ad dollars, broadcast stations are currently hot commodities in the media firmament, but Democrats will likely make life more difficult for station group owners such as Fox and Nexstar if they’re looking to bulk up. Pallone, in particular, has been "very forceful about broadcast ownership," said Andrew Schwartzman, a senior counselor at the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.
After the FCC paved the way for Sinclair to become a major force in national media by bending the rules on how stations calculate their audiences, Pallone lobbied the FCC hard to block efforts by Sinclair to merge with rival broadcast giant Tribune Media.
But a squabble over divested stations resulted in the FCC effectively torpedoing the merger by referring it to an administrative law judge who has yet to rule on the case because he is on sick leave, his office told NBC News.
In the meantime, Sinclair has “the butter knife of Damocles" hanging over it, joked Schwartzman.
Privacy regulations are likely be a priority for Democrats, particularly given California’s lead in enacting a bill to give consumers more control over who is seeing their data.
With an uptick in streaming content from online companies like Roku and Amazon, Democrats are going to be homing in on data privacy, or "retention of viewer data," Schwartzman told NBC News.
After a highly contentious repeal of net neutrality, which led to death threats against Pai and a litany of state-based lawsuits, freedom of the internet is one more high-profile case for Democrats to address as of January.
“I hope they hold a series of hearings to get on the record the acts that President Donald Trump's FCC decided to ignore when it comes to net neutrality,” Wheeler told NBC News.
So, while the media landscape has seen tectonic shifts in the past, the industry's major players will be hoping the Democrats focus their efforts on neutering the influence of big tech, and not just scrutinizing local TV deals.