Editorial: They’re (Almost) Off!

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says the green flag for the spectrum auction will be going down as scheduled March 29. Green flag, perhaps, but “red-letter day for broadcasters” is more like it. It will mark the beginning of another enormous sea change for an industry that had to remake itself only seven years ago, after the 2009 digital transition.

Wheeler has said he would lead the parade back to Congress—though FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly may fight him for the baton—if $1.75 billion is not enough to cover moving expenses for the broadcasters who decide to remain in the business of news, entertainment and community service.

We would like to hold the chairman to that, but he is likely to be gone by the time the bill comes due. So: From his mouth to the next chairman’s ears.

The same goes for the 39-month repack time line. Maybe Wheeler should signal to his successor the flexibility he has signaled to Congress. He has said there could be waivers of the deadline on a case-by-case basis. That should also carry forward to the next FCC iteration.

And Congress signified last week it would be watching the fate of broadcasters and their viewers carefully, including potentially through legislation to insure the money and time don’t run out.

At an FCC oversight hearing, legislator after legislator talked about making sure broadcast viewers did not lose signals and rural broadcasters would not be trumped by big-market movers.

Wheeler talked last week about the ubiquity and value of broadcasters—a bit of praise that’s still a challenge for the industry to accept when the other message out of the FCC is that their spectrum is best used elsewhere.

We think it is something of a false choice. Broadband and broadcasting are both important, and their importance is not mutually exclusive.

Broadcasters continue to be the go-to source of local news, and the place politicians will still primarily make their case this fall for two or four or six more years—although that case is harder to make all the time, given the tenor of Washington. Broadcasters can and will be players in a wireless broadband world, given a new transmission standard and some out-of-the-box thinking.

A little ownership deregulation help from the FCC wouldn’t hurt, either. Wheeler said last week that by June he would circulate a proposal to resolve the years-long regulatory review. We’ll remind him of that when the time comes, and we can only hope the FCC sees the light of reason and pares back impediments to an industry that faces a Web-wide world of competition.