Berry: FCC Has Made Mess of Auction Decisions

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to Republican commissioner Ajit Pai, slammed the FCC's incentive auction framework with one hand while patting broadcasters on the back with the other as public service paragons.

That is according to a copy of a speech he was delivering Aug. 18.

Berry told an audience at a Michigan Association of Broadcasters advocacy conference (he grew up in the state) that the FCC is "poised to dump serious post-auction difficulties into the laps of broadcasters, wireless carriers, and future Commissions."

He said the FCC's decisions have made both sides unhappy, He said that  could conceivably have been because the FCC had "wisely promulgated” A Solomon-like compromise, but said that was not the case. "[I]t’s more likely that [they’ve] made a mess of things. And unfortunately, in this instance, the latter is true."

Berry's boss voted against the incentive auction framework at the Aug. 6 meeting, criticizing the FCC's decision to repack TV stations in the wireless band--Matthew waxed poetic in the speech, saying they were being "sprinkled like fairy dust" throughout the band--where they could impair the licenses and reduce their value because of what Berry called "permanent inter-service interference."

Berry also hammered the commission's decision to put TV stations in the duplex gap (between uplink and downlink portions of the wireless bands). he pointed out that broadcasters, wireless carriers, Senate Democrats and unlicensed advocates all expressed serious concerns about putting TV stations in the gap, that that the "just didn't listen."

The result, he said, was that "full-power television stations will have fewer opportunities to improve their facilities following the incentive auction and more low-power TV stations and TV translators that provide valuable service across the county will go off the air."

LPTV's (outside of Class A's ) and translators do not get to participate in the auction, and their signals and service areas are not protected in the post-auction repack. In fact, the FCC has proposed reserving the last vacant channel in a market for unlicensed, and perhaps two in the handful of markets where it may be placing stations in the duplex gap.

He said Pai's office believes that broadcasters should have priority in the TV band, but that "the Commission’s majority no longer believes that." That is the three Democrats. Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly joined Pai in dissenting from the auction item for similar reasons.

Berry took aim at what he said was the FCC's inconsistent regulatory approach.

"In areas where broadcasters support loosening regulatory requirements, the Commission opposes doing so," he said. "But in areas where broadcasters oppose relaxing regulation, the Commission supports it." the former would local ownership rules broadcasters have seeking relief from for years; the latter would include FCC  Chairman Tom Wheeler's circulation last week of proposal to eliminate the network nonduplication and syndicated exclusivity rules broadcasters say are needed to preserve localism.

Berry called it unacceptable that it has been over seven years since the FCC last reviewed those media ownership rules, a review that won't be done until next year.

"Instead of thumbing our nose at Congress, we should comply with the law. And instead of maintaining ownership regulations that reflect the media marketplace as it existed decades ago, we should modernize our rules to keep up with the times. In particular, it is long past time that we eliminate the FCC’s newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, which is a relic from another era. Indeed, at the rate things are going, I’m not sure which will last longer: print newspapers or the newspaper-broadcast crossownership rule."

Berry said the FCC should not be the enemy of broadcasters, though he could understand how they might feel that was the case.

He then went on to make it clear he was no enemy with an eloquent tribute that if the National Association of Broadcasters hasn’t' already engraved on a commemorative plaque, it is missing an opportunity.

"Each night my parents watch the same 11 0'clock. newscast in their suburban Detroit home," Berry said. "It doesn’t matter what else is going on. Whenever I’m visiting and the clock strikes 11, it’s time to watch the local news. And don’t even think about suggesting that they watch a different local newscast! That would be like shifting their hockey allegiance from the Red Wings to the Maple Leafs.

“[A]s broadcasters, you are connected to your communities in a way that few others are. People turn to you when tragedy strikes. They turn to you to celebrate a local sports team’s championship. And for many, a favorite television or radio personality is like an old friend to whom they
can turn for comfort when life gets tough."

"In our nation’s capital, where I work, the phrase 'public interest' is thrown around a lot. But to broadcasters, serving the public interest isn’t empty rhetoric or a self-aggrandizing political slogan. It is what you do, in ways large and small, to make your communities better places to live. From giving people the information they need to stay safe during a weather emergency, to raising money for the local food bank or helping to find a missing child, you play a vital role in your local communities each and every day."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.