Editorial: Staying Power

In only weeks, by the FCC’s informal reckoning, the broadcast spectrum auction will begin.

It is a complicated, only marginally scrutable, event to the layfolk out there, and a tall order for the folks with pocket protectors.

It has been years in the making and, if you include the planning by former FCC chairs and staffs to push wireless broadband center stage, probably a couple of decades.

The National Association of Broadcasters has worked hard to preserve the system of local broadcasting that provided the anchor content for all the multichannel services that have since flourished and multiplied.

There is a reason beyond political expedience that broadcasters always invoke local news and emergency information when threatened by government. Viewers depend on it—sometimes for their lives—and for a more diverse view of the world thanks to multicast channels (if not, admittedly, a more diverse view of management suites).

Yes, there will be fewer broadcasters after the auction, and the ones that stay in the business will have to keep their operations and public service going while also modifying and moving equipment and making sure viewers can still find them. That will be nothing new for veterans of the first digital TV transition.

Yes, most viewers watch video over a broadband connection, but cord-cutters are beginning to see the value of wedding internet with over-the-air. And for the millions of minorities and lower-income folks who over-index for broadcast-only service, TV stations will still be there to serve them while the FCC rushes to disgorge spectrum to wireless companies.

We will be eager to hear FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s speech to the assembled industry at the NAB Show this week in Las Vegas. He has spoken recently about how important broadcasting still is. But actions speak louder than words.

That means that when Wheeler circulates his take on revamped media ownership rules in June, as he has promised Congress, he should include getting rid of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rules, which past FCC chiefs on both sides of the political spectrum have said should have been gone long ago but for Congress’ fear of the power of TV stations at election time.

B&C has been chronicling the ups and downs of television since it was a blurry black-and-white cat on a goofy-looking tube. TV has since become a cool cat on multiple screens.

OK, it is not easy getting on some of those screens given the reluctance of cell phone companies to activate FM chips, but that is a subject for another editorial.

Through it all, broadcasters, generally (every bunch has a few bad apples) have been doing well financially by making good television and doing good deeds in their communities. That will not change, no matter where the FCC puts them and no matter what tools they are left with.

Broadcasters are a resilient bunch and, while this week’s Cover Story suggests it is an irony that none of the Las Vegas stations were eligible for the auction, it is probably instead fitting that the host city for the NAB Show is a relinquishment-free zone.

Broadcasters may relinquish spectrum, but broadcasting will not yield its central place in the communities it continues to serve.