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Editorial: Unite andConquer

“We must seize the opportunities that new technology platforms present to broadcasters. Otherwise, we are essentially handing our competitors the keys to our future.” That was the rallying cry, and warning, of National Association of Broadcasters president/ CEO Gordon Smith at last week’s annual convention in Las Vegas.

Smith was speaking to a crowd of broadcasters understandably concerned about how the FCC will subdivide their spectrum real estate—the commission has pledged no eminent domain-like takings—to make way for the broadband superhighway; how they will compete with new technologies if still yoked to regulations suited to the days of three channels; and the prospect of having a court, or courts, hand the keys to online competitors (see Aereo, Aereokiller, et al).

Then there is the big variable: an economy that is looking up, at least until the next game of congressional chicken with the national debt.

There are reasons for broadcasters to be concerned about their fate, but not resigned to a fate dictated by others. That includes seeking a united front on mobile DTV, which has challenges enough without broadcasters adding to them by dividing their energies.

Buzz intensified at NAB around the idea of a merger between the Mobile500 alliance and Dyle after members of both outfits said on a panel that a hookup could happen soon.

We applaud the idea; a joint effort on bringing live TV to lots of smartphones and tablets couldn’t come soon enough. And an obvious top priority once the industry is united on mobile DTV is finding a way to incentivize and partner with smartphone manufacturers to get built-in receivers placed in as many devices as possible— before the window of time when the viewing public is, er, receptive to the idea of watching their local stations on mobile closes.

In the same NAB appearance that News Corp. president/COO Chase Carey offered fighting words to protect the Fox Broadcasting signal from live streaming forces such as Aereo from “stealing” it, Carey also underlined how crucial the national-local partnership is. He said the affiliate-network relationship is the core of Fox’s business and the reason why the network re-joined the NAB. “We’re stronger together,” he said, noting that business challenges such as retrans negotiations and sorting through TV Everywhere options can be met as long as they are approached together and with “a sense of fairness.”

It is a challenge to keep up with the technological innovations getting their tires kicked on the NAB Show floor. And it is impossible not to see a strong future for broadcasters in all that innovation, and the money put into pitching the industry on the latest high-tech gear, so long as broadcasters work together to make it happen.

Of course, that will also require Washington not to be the dream killer by getting the incentive auctions wrong or continuing to punt on media ownership reforms, or any reforms that could allow broadcasters to better compete with new media upstarts.

This could be a time for new beginnings. It is a new Congress, there will be a new FCC chairman, and last week House Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden vowed vigorous oversight of the incentive auctions with an eye toward coming out the other side with a vibrant, not just viable, broadcasting business.

But Washington can only do so much—and frequently doesn’t do much that it could do. Broadcasters must be committed to experimentation, innovation and investment in new ways of packaging and delivering content.

Smith said last week that may ultimately include a new transmission standard. The FCC has approved a Sinclair-backed effort to test new transmission approaches. Broadcasters beyond that group should take advantage of that opportunity. The FCC has signaled it is willing to entertain similar testing of new communications ideas, and broadcasters should have plenty of those.

Smith said he was optimistic about broadcasting’s future. Of course, we would expect no less out of the NAB president at a convention scene-setter. But broadcasters, through creativity, perseverance and commitment, can prove Smith right.