FCC: Repacking Some Heat

The fault line between broadcasters and the FCC was exposed last week on the issue of “repacking.” That’s the FCC’s plan to move broadcasters—less than two years after the repacking of stations in the DTV transition—to free up contiguous bands for wireless broadband.

It is hard to see from this vantage point how the two sides can come together on a definition of “voluntary” spectrum reclamation and auctions with that elephant in the room.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski made it clear last week to broadcasters in Las Vegas that his definition of “voluntary” does not extend to repacking—he prefers “realigning”—that the FCC will have to do with broadcasters that don’t volunteer to give up their spectrum.

Genachowski said that would be an unprecedented move. He was echoing the comments of Intel executive and former FCC official Peter Pitsch at a spectrum hearing in Washington the same day. “Voluntary can’t mean undermining the potential effectiveness of an auction by giving every broadcaster a new and unprecedented right to keep their exact channel location,” the chairman said. “This would not only be unprecedented, it would give any one broadcaster veto power over the success of the auction.” Pitsch told Congress that it’s “critical to note that the repacking process should not be made voluntary….Making repacking voluntary would give many broadcasters hold-out power.”

Not that some big-time broadcasters are that anxious to move anyway, if reaction to Genachowski’s statements was any gauge. Leslie Moonves, president/CEO of CBS, said thanks but no thanks in a discussion at the National Association of Broadcasters show. At the same event, Post-Newsweek’s Alan Frank said Genachowski seemed to be talking past the issue of over-the-air broadcasting to what the FCC would be doing with spectrum.

NAB President Gordon Smith made it just as clear that repacking is not his idea of voluntary. “It concerns us that the FCC could forcibly relocate a broadcaster, crowd channels closer together, reduce their coverage, destroy innovation for viewers, increase interference, or otherwise degrade their signal,” Smith said. “This endangers our digital future, and violates President Obama’s promise to prevent a world of digital haves and have-nots.”

There is not a lot of room to maneuver away from that position, but Smith didn’t suggest he had any plans to do so. He said NAB is in “full battle mode.”

Both broadcasters and the FCC have been in something of a kabuki dance of calculated crosstalk emphasizing the positives, but with the subtext the tension between what they are saying and what appears to be shaping up as the end game. Broadcasters have been saying they are willing to work with the FCC and don’t reject spectrum reclamation out of hand, so long as they are held harmless, the subtext of which is no forced moves.

The chairman has consistently billed the spectrum plan as a “voluntary” win-win for broadcasters. Genachowski last week met with state broadcasters to make his pitch. But broadcasters aren’t convinced, and the line in the sand on repacking, since it affects the broadcasters who don’t want to sell, doesn’t help.

Added Rep. Greg Walden (R.-Ore.) to those unconvinced: ‘Forced’ and ‘voluntary’ don’t sound compatible,” Walden told B&C last week.

“My concern is that there’s not yet been enough discussion on the implications and consequences for those who don’t participate in the auction,” Hearst TV president/CEO David Barrett told B&C at NAB after Genachowski’s speech. “I don’t think we can engage in the challenges without seeing the modeling first.”

The problem is the FCC won’t know exactly what it will have to do until it knows which broadcasters have agreed to participate in the auction. That sounded like “buying a pig in a poke” to Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) last week. He is clearly not alone. —with Michael Malone

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.