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What Can the Entertainment Industry Expect in Trump’s First 100 Days as President?

Variety logo Variety 1/18/2017 Ted Johnson

Repealing Obamacare, renegotiating trade deals, and rolling back regulations and executive orders are said to sit atop the agenda for Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office. But if there’s one thing to be gleaned from his transition period, it’s that one can never be sure when it comes to Trump. That’s especially true on issues that directly affect the entertainment industry, from a potential rollback of net neutrality to a lowering of the corporate tax rate.

The biggest immediate change is likely to be apparent at the inauguration, in the makeup of showbiz figures who turn out for Trump’s swearing in and associated events. He’s insisting there will be a hefty dose of star power, but it’s hard to see A-listers who backed Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama making the trek, and a number have declined either out of protest or fear of getting engulfed in the political fray.

The true test of where Trump stands vis-à-vis Hollywood may come on his 100th day, April 29, which happens to be the date of the White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner. We don’t know for sure whether Trump will actually attend, but the bigger question is whether showbiz figures will show up for a night when there are many jokes made at the commander-in-chief’s expense. Obama’s presidency elevated the event’s profile; it was also Obama’s 2011 takedown of Trump (who was in the audience) that is thought to have driven the mogul to seek the highest office.

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“I think that is the night he resolved to become president,” Roger Stone, Trump’s unofficial adviser, told PBS’ “Frontline” last year.

It’s pretty clear, though, that the Trump presidency will make for a different relationship with the entertainment industry. Here’s what to watch out for in this formative period of the new presidency.

The FCC

If Trump follows through with his call to roll back regulations, that theme is likely to be echoed in whomever he picks to chair the FCC. Among those in contention: commissioner Ajit Pai, who is likely to serve as acting chairman immediately after Trump takes office, when Republicans will enjoy a 2-1 majority on the commission. Other contenders for chair are said to be Brandt Hershman, an Indiana state senator, and Jeffrey Eisenach, who has been leading Trump’s FCC transition efforts.

In any case, the biggest action is likely to be inaction on one of last year’s most controversial FCC proposals: “opening up” the set-top box. This would require that cable providers offer an app so consumers can access programming on multiple devices. Championed by outgoing FCC chairman Tom Wheeler as a way to spur competition in the market for TV navigation, the strategy was bitterly opposed by the cable industry and Hollywood studios. With Wheeler on his way out, it’s hard to see why the two GOP FCC commissioners, Pai and Michael O’Rielly, would choose to revisit the issue, given that they previously expressed opposition to the idea.

Net neutrality

The FCC won a big legal victory last June when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held up its rules of the road for the internet, or net neutrality. The new Republican majority on the FCC has strongly suggested that they would look to roll back the regulations, in which the agency reclassified internet service as a utility, as a way of gaining the legal footing to impose robust regulations.

The simplest way to roll back net neutrality would be to stop enforcement; more difficult would be to start a new proceeding to rewrite the rules, for the fourth time in 12 years, as they would be subject to a public review process. That wouldn’t go unnoticed by public-interest groups and internet firms, along with the likes of John Oliver, who in 2014 weighed in and helped push the FCC to make a much stronger set of rules than originally planned.

There’s also the possibility of congressional legislation imposing a set of net neutrality rules — but many activists fear the result would be a watered-down version of what exists now. Republicans have been champing at the bit to tackle net neutrality, something they long have argued is a solution in search of a problem, but you can bet that there will be potent pushback online.

Media mergers

During the campaign, Trump came out against the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger, saying at a rally that there is already too great a concentration of media companies. He reportedly still opposes the transaction.

But the wisdom is that the Republican majority spells an easier time to win the green light for a merger. And the CEOs of AT&T and Time Warner are talking about the deal as if there are few, if any, antitrust issues, given that it is a transaction that is not eliminating competition. That is an important point: Trump can’t block the deal by fiat; his Dept. of Justice has to lay out the legal rationale for stopping it, and has to be prepared to challenge the deal in court. A lot will depend on Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions’ views, and who he ultimately lines up to lead the DOJ’s Antitrust Division.

Trade

Hollywood had a big stake in the Trans Pacific Partnership, the massive trade deal between the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries that was meant to boost intellectual property protections and standardize the length of copyright terms. But Trump ran on walking away from the TPP, so the question is, what next? He has mentioned the problem of protecting intellectual property in other countries, so expect some kind of gesture, even if the issue is not atop the agenda in the initial stages of the Trump presidency.

Trump will have to fill one White House position devoted entirely to copyright protection, the so-called “IP czar,” or intellectual property enforcement coordinator. A nomination could come in the first 100 days.

China

Trump has promised to take on China, calling for his Treasury Secretary to label the country a “currency manipulator.” That would seem to have little direct impact on Hollywood as it seeks greater access to the Chinese marketplace. But trade negotiations are expected to begin in February in which expansion of China’s film importation quota, currently at 34 movies, is on the table. Chinese government officials have suggested that they would be open to raising the quota, but it’s not known how they would respond if the U.S. takes on a more aggressive and even combative strategy against the country. The fear in the film business is that the Chinese could retaliate by targeting the quota, along with other trade measures.

The arts

When stories surfaced that Trump was talking to Sylvester Stallone about taking a spot with the National Endowment for the Arts (Stallone turned down the position), it suggested that Trump had been looking to fill the role with a high-profile figure. That may be good news for arts advocates, who have for years fought Republican efforts to scale back NEA funding or even eliminate it altogether. It’s still unclear what value Trump places on government arts funding, but a good indication will be whomever he ultimately nominates for the NEA chairmanship.

White House Correspondents’ Assn. Dinner

Omarosa Manigault, the former “Apprentice” contestant and incoming White House adviser, thinks Trump will relish the chance to speak at the White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner. During the Obama years, the event grew into a weekend-long Beltway bonanza of boldfaced names and red-carpet revelry. Will that continue? A big question mark is what kind of relationship the administration will have with the White House press corps. The New York Times has for years refused to participate in the WHCA dinner, as critics have characterized it as an incestuous, partying mix of sources and serious reporters who otherwise should be at arm’s length. Given Trump’s relentless attacks on the media, there may be pressure on other media organizations to scale back. And there’s also the question of just what comic will take on the assignment of following Trump at the event. It’s a tough gig under any circumstances; that’ll be the case even more so this year, as plenty of critics will call on the WHCA not to treat the new president with kid gloves.

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