Last night's net neutrality episode had some good one-liners but a repetitive plot

Upcoming 5G storyline could make The FCC a ratings killer

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In a return to form following weeks of lagging ratings, government reality show The FCC returned to a familiar topic last night – net neutrality – and reaped the benefits.

The episode was built around a vote in the Senate to repeal the repeal of net neutrality rules – which may sound a little contrived but thanks to a good script and some powerful acting ended up being the most enjoyable outing this season.

The premise also enabled the return of several reality-government stars including John Thune (R-SD) and Ed Markey (D-MA), who revised their award-winning roles of clashing Republican and Democratic senators, to great aplomb.

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Thune and Markey did a great job making what could have been a dull premise – a vote that doesn't really mean anything – into something with genuine tension.

Right up until the end – with a Congressional staffer slowly, painfully, reading out the names and votes – it wasn't clear which way the vote would go. A shout-out too to whoever played the staffer for their drawn-out, eye-rolling "Nooooes" – never was a roll-call so much fun.

That vote was preceded with fiery speeches railing against the power of corporate America, contrasted with counter-punches about heavy-handed government legislation, and some personal insults thrown in for good measure. It was The FCC at its best, especially when the very essence of America – freedom – was used by both sides to argue for their position.

No one can do duplicity like John Thune however. And he stole the show when, in a dramatic scene that clues the audience in that the Republicans may actually lose, he appealed to the other side's better nature and made an impassioned plea for bipartisan legislation to fix the issue of net neutrality once and for all.

Deadlock

Of course that was never going to happen – the show would be crazy to undercut its core premise of tracking machinations within a hopelessly deadlocked system – but for a moment it felt like there would be genuine rapprochement.

Then, just as the audience starts being pulled toward optimism, the show delivered its trademark crash-and-dash as Thune delivers the line that the whole thing was a "fake argument that is going nowhere."

The Senate sessions were intercut with scenes back at the FCC itself with preening rich boy boss Ajit Pai confidently predicting that the vote would fail, and underdog commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel defiantly preparing herself for yet another loss.

That made the win all that much more entertaining to watch as the result and its implications slowly dawned on the pair.

Producers made the smart decision not to give Rosenworcel a big victory speech but a smaller and more real reaction. "Today the United States Senate took a big step to fix the serious mess the FCC made when it rolled back net neutrality late last year," she started, before catching her step and arguing that the FCC was "on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American people."

She closed with a promise that will have avid The FCC watchers excited about the next few episodes. "I'll keep raising a ruckus to support net neutrality and I hope others will too," she said, looking directly into the camera.

Those who had hoped to see Pai crushed by the loss were, of course, disappointed. What we did get was his trademark arrogance tinged with self-doubt that makes the FCC chair such a compelling character to hate-watch.

Margin call

"It's disappointing that Senate Democrats forced this resolution through by a narrow margin," he said dismissively but with a pained expression that had viewers reaching for their phones and Twitter.

You could almost see the cogs turning with bureaucratic malevolence, however, when he recovered with the line: "But ultimately, I'm confident that their effort to reinstate heavy-handed government regulation of the internet will fail."

The initial slip was brilliantly picked up, however, and presented Ed Markey with the episode's best and most satisfying one-liner. "Narrow margin?" he responded. "Unfortunately, 52 votes confirmed you as Chairman."

It was a zinger that referred back to an earlier episode where Pai received the chairmanship after a clandestine meeting with the chair of media giant Sinclair and an Oval Office follow-up.

There has been no reference for weeks to what is presumably an ongoing investigation by the FCC's Inspector General into Pai's subsequent Sinclair-friendly decisions, raising the likelihood that it could be used as this season's cliffhanger.

The topic of net neutrality was also used to make some astute observations about broader America.

You had the CEO of the Small Business Majority, John Arensmeyer, praising the vote for "acting in the best interests of small businesses" and warning that if the new rules do finally get approved, it would could mean "small employers could lose business because their websites might experience longer load times, or their sites could be blocked entirely from reaching consumers."

Plot drag

And on the other side, Jonathan Spalter revised his role as CEO of USTelecom with dangerous-pragmatist delivery. "This vote throws into reverse our shared goal of maintaining an open, thriving internet," he told a gaggle of reporters before turning on the politicians themselves: "Consumers want permanent, comprehensive online protections, not half measures or election year posturing from our representatives in Congress."

In short, it was an action-packed, bold and uncompromising episode and a surefire ratings winner. An unfortunate side-effect of the vote win however is that the net neutrality plot will be stretched out further. It's hard to see that becoming anything but repetitive – we are, after all, talking about the same rules over and over again. There's only so much you can do with the same material.

The makers of the The FCC are no doubt hoping that it will be able to repeat the success of net neutrality with its upcoming storyline on 5G, which promises much of the same tension between consumers and big business and gives ample opportunity for Pai and his commissioner cronies to play the system against passionate critics.

While The FCC doesn't attract anywhere near the viewing figures of The White House - whose explosive but over-the-top storylines have created a massive and dedicated following – it is still a show that consistently delivers. ®

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