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Tauzin Confirms MPAA Talks

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

If the Motion Picture Association of America offers its top slot to Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., as widely expected, the industry may succeed in hiring away one of its most influential friends ever on Capitol Hill.
That was the assessment of key industry sources in the wake of an avalanche of evidence that the lawmaker will take over soon for Jack Valenti as the motion picture and TV production industry’s top representative in Washington. There is widespread anticipation he will be offered the MPAA job before the end of the year, although MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor said, “There is no vacancy.”
His exit would have an impact on the movie and TV business. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Tauzin has had a key say in all legislation affecting the industry for the past several years. And according to industry sources, he usually approaches issues in an industry-friendly way.
Indeed, he is credited for almost single-handedly blocking a congressional vote on legislation to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s media ownership deregulation this year. That has been a major boon in particular to Viacom’s CBS and News Corp.’s Fox-both MPAA members who could be forced to divest TV stations if the FCC’s new rules are undone.
“He’s been very positive on the issues we’ve cared about over the years and very accessible,” said one industry association executive, who asked not to be identified.
Said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, “He’s been working as the media industry’s lobbyist for decades. They may as well pay him directly.”
The heir apparent to succeed Rep. Tauzin on the committee is Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a pro-deregulatory conservative who opposed retransmission consent in 1992 but has yet to take a public position on media ownership deregulation and other issues critical to the TV industry.
Speculation about a change in leadership was churning last week because Rep. Tauzin and his representatives were confirming long-pending rumors that the MPAA has its eye on the lawmaker.
“We’re hearing the same rumors you are,“ said Ken Johnson, Rep. Tauzin’s spokesman. “He is at the top of their wish list. An offer is expected at the end of the year.”
Mr. Johnson was denying persistent rumors that the deal for the new job had already been cut. Some sources said an agreement in principle was reached this past June after the MPAA considered other candidates including Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who has publicly announced he’s not pursuing the post, and former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clark.
If Sen. Tauzin knew he had the job at that point, ethical niceties-if not the law-would suggest that the colorful lawmaker should have recused himself from congressional business affecting the TV and movie industries, sources said.
“It might raise eyebrows with other people, but with Billy this [sort of conflict] would be expected,” said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the activist Media Access Project.
Mr. Johnson disputed a published report claiming that the lawmaker has been working through a Los Angeles agent who is putting the final details on a deal that would give Rep. Tauzin a $1.5 million salary and such amenities as a chauffeur and homes in Los Angeles and New York.
“He does not have a Hollywood agent,” said Mr. Johnson. “He is not negotiating with anyone. Period.”
Mr. Johnson also insisted it was still unclear whether Rep. Tauzin will take the post. “The only thing we don’t know is whether he’ll accept it,” Mr. Johnson said.
But a skeptical friend of the congressman said there’s no doubt about Rep. Tauzin’s intentions. “If they offer him the job, he’s going to take it,” the source said.
At the MPAA, Rep. Tauzin will have big shoes to fill. The diminutive Mr. Valenti, 82, has become a larger-than-life figure during a career with the MPAA that has spanned 37 years. Indeed, Mr. Valenti may be the most recognizable symbol of the production community’s interests across the world, his iconic status boosted by extensive international travel, thousands of speeches he’s given and his regular appearances on the global broadcasts of the Oscars.
After years during which Mr. Valenti built a reputation for uncanny success in getting Hollywood heard in Washington, and years of being a darling of the media, Mr. Valenti has recently run into a firestorm of criticism for his role in ending the practice of sending movie videos out for awards consideration. While Mr. Valenti has said the issue is piracy, others have charged he is acting on behalf of the big studios, which are tired of seeing limited-release films win most awards. A compromise was reached, but the battle clearly has taken its toll.
Both Mr. Valenti and Rep. Tauzin are considered excellent speakers. But while Mr. Valenti, who has told friends that he is ready to step down from his MPAA post, sprinkles his starchy, eloquent prose with arcane vocabulary-busters, Rep. Tauzin has a far folksier, good-ol’-boy style, redolent of his Cajun roots in the bayou country of southern Louisiana.
Said MAP’s Mr. Schwartzman, “Billy has that special flair that will enable him to fit in well with the showbiz community.”
Mr. Valenti and Rep. Tauzin also share Democratic roots. Mr. Valenti was a top aide in Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House. Rep. Tauzin launched his political career in Congress as a Democrat. He switched his affiliation to the Republican Party in 1995, after the GOP won majority control of the House, a move that paved the way for his promotion to the chairmanship of the House telecommunications subcommittee .
Some see Rep. Tauzin’s Republican connections as his strongest sales points for the MPAA because Congress is expected to remain under GOP control for the foreseeable future.
Veteran observers of the political scene said one of the more unusual things about the MPAA succession story is that it has become so public-and that Rep. Tauzin and his representatives have been affirming the congressman’s interest in the job.
At least some sources were reading the comments from the congressman’s office as further evidence that a deal had been done, on the argument that the lawmaker will look like a loser now if an offer is not forthcoming. “Billy’s too smart to let that happen,” said one lobbyist.
One theory making the rounds last week is that rumors about Rep. Tauzin’s alleged job hunt were originally leaked by his political foes in an effort to compromise his leadership authority in the waning days of the congressional session. But so rampant had the rumors become on Capitol Hill that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., took the unusual step of asking Rep. Tauzin personally about his plans on Oct. 24.
“He did tell the speaker the other day that if Jack Valenti retires and MPAA makes him a proposal, he’s willing to hear what they have to say,” Mr. Johnson said.
While Rep.Tauzin’s congresssional tenure receives raves from industry leaders, the reviews from the watchdog community are mixed at best. “He basically represents one constituency: the biggest corporations in America, and he doesn’t apologize for it,” said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America. “From my point of view, he’s a total lost cause.”