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Editorial: Seize the Day

It is not overstating the case to say that broadcasters are facing one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the medium. They are in a fight for their future. And when it comes to letting the wireless and consumer electronics industries badmouth them as squatters and obstructionists, they need to throw open the window and yell as loud as they can: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Back in the late 1980s, the momentum was all for creating an analog sideband HDTV system until a better way came along—digital—and suddenly that plan was instantly outdated. That was a pivotal moment, with a flawed plan overtaken by a better one.

Broadcasters are faced with momentum behind another plan, this one to free up spectrum from broadcasters, but a plan that could leave those broadcasters with fewer competitive options and de facto second-class citizenship status compared to broadband.

It is hard to argue against the broadband revolution, and nobody is. Of course, broadband is a transformative technology. We’re just saying that broadcasters aren’t the enemy. They are more like a national treasure in the path of an advancing army with a laudable goal of connecting America to a ubiquitous medium, though there is some irony in the fact that they are already connected to one: It’s called broadcasting.

Broadcasting can potentially be used to handle the explosion in broadband while still maintaining a service that serves millions over the air and the rest over a wire or a satellite. Remember, by far the most popular cable networks are TV stations. Those cable networks, looked at one way, are the wired antennas—admittedly, really long ones—that deliver local broadcasting service into the home alongside all those national cable nets. CATV, after all, originally stood for “Community Antenna Television.”

If it were so easy to replicate cable-only models of TV stations, cable operators wouldn’t be paying all those broadcasters for their signals.

On this page last week, we gave you our take on what we would like to hear from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, which was a recognition of the value of broadcasters not as an ancillary service, or as good sports who could move out of the way quietly when the broadband wagon paraded through town, but as a partner in a media future they helped shape.

But broadcasters, too, must make themselves heard loud and clear over the broadband din, with strong actions as well as words. If there was ever a time for broadcasters to make like Wynton Marsalis and blow their own horn, it is now. Broadcasters have a great story to tell, including a brighter financial picture for their core business and opportunities for growth in ancillary services.

“With an improving economy, we see renewed appreciation for the value broadcasters create,” says one broker looking to drum up business at NAB. With the M&A market heating up, or at least thawing out, it is time to be creating more value and making the value they already have inescapable in Washington.

The National Association of Broadcasters has talked about holding the industry “harmless” in the broadband spectrum push, but the FCC should be doing more than that. It should be proactively valuing the medium for all the reasons that both the commission and the Obama administration were valuing it during the DTV transition.

For their part, broadcasters must convert on the digital dividend with more multicast channels (kudos to Bounce TV, by the way), a competitive mobile DTV system, and likely some new overthe- air technology or service a broadcaster’s kid is dreaming up in a garage or dorm room. Yes, that’s right: Those venues and their innovative inhabitants are not the sole province of Silicon Valley.

Or, put another way, broadcasters must figure out what to do if the FCC does not put on the brakes.

They must make doubly sure they are covering their local politicians, issuing Amber alerts, providing sometimes wall-to-wall storm and disaster coverage, raising millions of dollars for charity, and donating their time and attention to myriad community projects.

Or, put another way, what most have been doing all along.