Editorial: Battle Cry

Former senator Gordon Smith is not ready to concede that broadcasters are headed for the tar pits. Not that he would be heading the National Association of Broadcasters if he did, but in an interview with B&C this week (see “Cover Story,” page 10), Smith was not pulling any punches as he prepped for his keynote at the upcoming NAB Show in Las Vegas, while trying to put out fires at the FCC and on the Hill.

The FCC is sure acting like it has a bias against broadcasters, Smith says, or a bias in favor of their multichannel video programming distributor competition or for the wireless companies hungrily eyeing broadcasters’ spectrum.

And this at the same time the FCC is going to not only need some broadcasters to give up spectrum for auction, but for others to continue to deliver services to the tens of millions of people who still rely on over-the-air TV—the same people the Obama administration spent millions to ensure they could still get an over-the-air signal in the DTV transition.

That is why it would be a good idea for the commission to come up with something akin to a National Broadcast Plan, as Smith suggests, to better explain how over-the-air fits into the communications future, and demonstrate with actions rather than words that the FCC sees a future for broadcasting.

Smith is not feeling the love from the FCC, but he also isn’t feeling any for pay-TV providers, who he described to B&C as willing to “milk, bilk and bill by the bit.” Look for that phrase to echo from the walls of the Las Vegas Convention Center as Smith rallies the troops to battle for their future.

And a battle it certainly seems to be. The NAB is only one of many members, but the TVFreedom. org coalition was taking its swings at MVPDs last week against the backdrop of a Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Smith was a prominent audience member, watching NAB TV board chair Marci Burdick defend broadcasters’ life—which she does well, by the way.

TVFreedom, whose members include the NAB as well as the major affiliate associations, used a variant of a March Madness bracket for an ad that was more hardball than roundball, painting MVPDs as gougers whose victories are tied in to consumer losses. Not to be outdone, the American Television Alliance—cable, satellite and telco members— took out their own ad, also running in a D.C. publication, playing off their theme of a clueless, lost-in-the- ’70s broadcast industry. STELA will be a big battleground on retrans as cable ops try to make it a venue for video reforms beyond extending the distant signal license, and broadcasters try to keep it free of anything they believe could reduce their ability to be fairly compensated for their must-have programming. It would be good if it were “only” that simple. But broadcasters are fighting a multi-front battle, and the auction could help determine what exactly it is that broadcasters are fighting for: A one-to-many architecture that makes sure no viewer is left behind, or a marginalized service limping along the info highway.

Undoubtedly some broadcasters will agree to sell all their spectrum and take the money. Others will choose to sell some spectrum and share, so long as the FCC makes the price attractive enough. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is right when he says that, for some broadcasters, the auction is an opportunity to both make money and continue in the business.

But that will, by definition, be a trade-off, and probably not for those who believe broadcasting’s future can be as bright as Smith has often painted it, so long as the FCC allows them to bloom alongside that other upstart—one-to-one wireless broadcast technology.