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Giving the FCC Some License

The FCC rather quietly released an important document last week. While it rated neither a headline on the main page of the commission’s Website, nor a mention in its Daily Digest of FCC notices, news releases and texts, “Spectrum Analysis: Options for Broadcast Spectrum” lays out the FCC’s plan for reclaiming 120 MHz of spectrum from broadcasters for reallocation to wireless broadband.

The National Association of Broadcasters did not weigh in immediately, saying it was studying the document. It should do so carefully.

The commission provides a few encouraging words about the continued value of over-the-air TV, but those comments seem more like lip service than endorsements. The document sends some troubling signals. Perhaps a mixed message is to be expected from an agency that has approached numerous issues with processes that leave plenty of wiggle room down the line. But don’t look for the FCC to do much wiggling in its quest for broadcast spectrum, which Chairman Julius Genachowski has said is part of the answer to a growing crisis.

“Some stations may realize that their spectrum license holds more value in an auction than they can achieve under their current business model and future broadcast opportunities,” says the FCC in the document, apparently having already figured out what those future broadcast opportunities may be. The commission may be correct, but its current interests are served by finding reasons for broadcasters to clear out.

Ironically, stations in the smallest markets, including some that are financially strapped, will not be eligible for the buyouts, the FCC suggests. In that case, the agency should give those broadcasters more room to create multi-platforms in their markets.

Currently, the FCC does not allow duopolies in those smaller markets, or combos between TV stations and newspapers, but it could and should correct that in its review of media ownership rules. There may also be some support in the document for broadcasters’ argument that the FCC should take into account cable, satellite and the Internet in that media ownership review when it looks at how many diverse voices there are in a marketplace.

The FCC concedes that point. In arguing for being able to take back some spectrum in congested major areas, the commission says, “Consumers in these markets tend to have a relatively large number of alternatives to view television content—a median of 16 OTA [overthe- air] full-power television stations, OTA low-power stations and digital multicast channels, at least three to four multichannel video programming distributors [MVPDs], and a growing amount of broadband Internet video content, increasingly delivered to the TV.”

The FCC argues in the document that broadcasters will be able to do high-definition and give back some spectrum. The commission concedes, however, that it can’t do HD and mobile DTV now, though it suggests technology may solve that issue. And it suggests that questions remain about mobile DTV’s business plan and competitive future. Perhaps, but these are questions that broadcasters need to answer rather than take the FCC’s warning as a signal to retrench.

It is in the FCC’s interest now for some minimum threshold of broadcasters in major markets to second-guess their futures and give up some flexibility.

One thing is clear: The FCC wants that broadcast spectrum. Station owners will have to decide whether the commission is offering them a new business plan and a future, or using the lure of easy money to get them to sell themselves, and that future, short.