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David Barrett: Government Should Not Scrap Local Broadcasting In Favor Of National Service

A pair of broadcast executives made a pitch in Washington Thursday night for the value of local broadcasting in the face of government calls for them to give up spectrum for wireless broadband.

"The work that local stations do in this country is extraordinary and should not be taken for granted," said David Barrett, president of Hearst TV, which owns 29 TV stations.

Barrett was accepting the First Amendment Leadership Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation at a dinner in Washington. And while he talked eloquently about the need to preserve that freedom, he first talked about the need to preserve the spectrum that allows broadcasters to provide local service.

"We are, indeed, at a threshold of decision with respect to spectrum in this country and how it is used," he said. Barret hearkened back to the Communications Act of 1934 and its emphasis on localism. He said it was enlightened legislation because it rooted broadcast policy firmly in localism across over 200 markets. He said the country had been "extraordinarily well served by that spirit of localism."

Barret pointed out that the country could have built "supertransmitters" that broadcast regionally, but instead built a system that serves local communities.

"Yes, the country needs to solve spectrum challenges" and needs to be "adaptive to what goes forward here with new forms of media, wireless media and the like,"  he said. But "shame on us if we let policy determinations throw out the existing system that serves Americans so well in favor of a new system that would emphasize national more than local service."  He told his audience they needed to press their case with legislators.

The FCC, with White House backing, wants broadcasting to free up more than a third of its current spectrum holdings to create a nationwide swath of spectrum to auction for wireless broadband.  Many broadcasters fear that means those who do not give up their spectrum altogether will be required to share spectrum, reducing their ability to offer competitive service like multicasting or mobile DTV, or move to the less DTV transmission-friendly VHF band, or both.

Barrett was putting an exclamation point on the impassioned plea of First Amendment Service Award winner Susana Schuler, VP, news, for Raycom Media. She said she had a message for thos who want to "take back our spectrum....There is no worse time for such action," when there was a growing appetite for news and broadcasters were positioned to deliver it.

"Who is in a better position to inform you when a situation breaks locally or nationally, who is in better position to inform you when a dangerous storm is approaching than your local broadcaster, who is most able to hold officials accountable for the promises they make on the campaign trail, for the commitment they make to the community, for their fiscal responsibility," she asked. "who is better positioned to take on when a local consumer feels wronged, and who is more cabable of showing you what is working in your city... Noone is better positioned or more obligated than local broadcasters."