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Editorial: The Work Begins

The FCC’s broadcast incentive spectrum auction is history. Now comes all of the heavy lifting.

One of the biggest takeaways from the auction is how many broadcasters wanted to stay in the business rather than cash in and get out.

Of the 1,800 stations that could have participated — we won’t know who all took part, at least from the FCC, for another two years — only 145 actually sold their spectrum, and of those, only a dozen had not signaled a plan to stay on the air through channel-sharing agreements struck either before or after the auction. However, any of those could still strike such a deal and retain their must-carry rights on multichannel video programming distributors, so the 12 could be even fewer; plus, some of those 12 were noncoms or low-power stations, so the number of full-power commercial TV stations going off the air is even smaller. Yes, more TV stations were willing to give up spectrum in the initial stages, but that was at FCC-inflated prices (to get them into the tent) that no wireless operators were willing to pay, raising some questions about the auction structure and timing and the so-called wireless spectrum crisis. That, however, is another editorial.

So, if the FCC’s goal was to find out the highest, best use of that spectrum, broadcasters can still make a case that they remain a go-to, must-have service and a business that lots of people still want to be in.

Now the key is for the FCC to be flexible and accommodating in the postauction repack, which will require almost 1,000 stations to move channels in a staggered — some might say “staggering” — process that will also affect low-power stations and translators not eligible for the auction, and colocated radio stations who are collateral participants and who so far are not getting compensated for their dislocation.

Broadcasters have petitioned the FCC to tweak the process. Given that it will be a three-plus-year trek, it makes sense to seriously consider how it can be modified to provide the maximum flexibility to respond to changing circumstances.

We also encourage FCC chairman Ajit Pai to follow the lead of his predecessor and advocate for more money from Congress, which controls the purse strings of the $1.75 billion repack fund — if that proves necessary — and adjust the timetable if the Rubik’s Cube of linked moves proves more problematic than that 39-month timetable.

We were buoyed by the chairman’s view, expressed in an exclusive interview with B&C , that “broadcasters should not have to dig into their own pockets to finance a portion of the repacking costs.”

Yes, we recognize that deadlines are important so that forward auction bidders can take possession of the spectrum they have paid billions for. Comcast/NBCUniversal will be on both sides of the equation, for example, selling spectrum in multiple markets and buying it in others, so perhaps it can provide perspective down the line. But the FCC should not allow forward auction bidders to rush the process when their interests in moving quickly fail to coincide with the public’s interest in holding broadcasters and viewers as harmless in possible.

Whether or not the auction was a rousing success — and there are varying opinions on that — it is now in the books. What’s now important is to make the repack a rousing success, which means first do no harm (or at least limit the dislocation) to broadcasters and their viewers, and for the FCC to speed its order on allowing broadcasters to start kicking the tires on their new advanced transmission standard.

We also think another quote from the chairman’s interview, about the continued value of broadcasting in a multiplatform world, is worth repeating, and associating this page with: “Millions of Americans around the country rely on it to get their news, entertainment, sports and other information that is important to them … broadcasting is going to continue to be a very important value proposition for consumers going forward. It is highly local, it is tailored to the needs of communities, and, even as we enter a much more digital landscape, with ATSC 3.0 [the aforementioned next-gen transmission standard], I think broadcasters are going to be able to innovate yet still preserve that value proposition going forward.”