Supporters of free markets and free speech in communications lost a friend this past week with the passing of Sol Schildhause at the age of 89. While perhaps not well-known to many today, Sol was for decades a fixture in the world of cable TV, serving as the first head of the FCC’s cable bureau from 1966 to 1974–where he fought against rules that protected broadcasters from cable TV competition–and later as an attorney and chairman of the Media Institute, where he worked tirelessly for competition in cable TV itself. He was particularly instrumental in the effort to end exclusive cable franchising on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional violation of free speech. The Supreme Court decision that resulted from those efforts established that cable television firms’ were entitled to First Amendment protection, although it stopped short of banning exclusive local franchising.
Schildhause always seemed the maverick in his work, a happy warrior fighting against the status quo. This was evident even during his years at the FCC, where he was far from your typical bureaucrat. Sometimes this caused difficulties, as related by Tom Hazlett (now of George Mason University) in a 1998 article for Reason Magazine entitled “Busy Work”:
In 1966, my good friend–and great American–Sol Schildhause was picked to head a cable television “task force” at the Federal Communications Commission. The creation of the task force was a consolation prize to the fledgling cable industry, which had just suffered a series of humiliating regulatory defeats with rules protecting TV broadcasters from their new rivals. Sol gladly accepted his assignment and scheduled proceedings to produce fact-finding about emerging coaxial technology.
Wrong move. Broadcaster lobbyists heard about Sol’s efforts and descended upon the commission at warp speed. Hadn’t they just crushed their cable foes fair and square with rules made officially in the “public interest”? Wasn’t Sol’s inquiry a rear-guard action to circumvent due process? A broadcast lobby tsunami engulfed the FCC.
Sol was bobbing in rough seas. Strolling down an FCC hallway, a commission member grabbed him solidly around the shoulders: “Sol, Sol, Sol. What the hell is going on over there at your Cable Bureau?” Sol, responding proudly, boasted: “Well, we’re doing some very good things. Finding out a lot of interesting stuff about the new communications….”
At which point the commissioner cut in: “Dammit, Sol. You’re supposed to look busy, not be busy.”
Sol will be missed.