Gordon Smith: The NAB Is Engaged

Former Oregon Senator and current National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith is marking his first year in the post next week. He says he will do whatever is necessary to protect TV content from online pirates, but also wants it airing on whatever platform viewers tap into. He also sees changing the perception of NAB from defensive to engaged as his biggest success to date. Smith spoke exclusively with B&C’s Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton about these and other issues. What follows is an edited transcript.

Next week (Oct. 27) marks your one-year anniversary at NAB. What has been your biggest achievement?
An objective of mine coming in was to change the perception of NAB. My sense of NAB when I was on the other side of the dais was that it was "the House of no." I tried very hard to change that to have NAB engage on a whole range of issues. So, I have wanted to change that impression, and I think that that is succeeding. But until Congress adjourns I think it is premature to declare victory on anything.

Was there too much "no" in your rhetoric at the outset on the spectrum reclamation proposal?
At the very beginning I made clear to everyone that I supported voluntary talks and so long as there wasn't anything compulsory about it and if there was a public problem, count us in for trying to solve it, but after that, there began to come out lots of commentary that this was not going to end up voluntary and I felt it important to push for voluntary, and I think it is back there now.

So, do you support the FCC's plan?
The old saw is the devil is in the details, and the execution. We support voluntary and there may be member companies who volunteer to participate and we support that. Some of the proposals that this could lead to, of fees on licenses or repacking on ways that would degrade the television signal in ways that would take away the opportunities for broadcasting in the digital age like multicasting and mobile, we would oppose that.

Our sense from the FCC is that the 120 mHz they have set as a target for reclaimed broadcast spectrum is flexible.
That is my sense, as well. But we will see. When you want the 120 just out of the broadcast spectrum it creates technical problems that I am not sure have been answered to the satisfaction of technicians. And certainly not to my satisfaction.

Let's talk retransmission consent. Why not allow station signals to remain on the air during retrans impasses so viewers can still see their football games, for example?
Because the structure the Congress created is working. Negotiations in the thousands have successfully been concluded and rarely is there an interruption. And if the government puts its thumb on the scales of negotiation then that is not the free market. That is not allowing content owners and transmission providers to come to a deal that works for both.

Over-the-top services like ivi TV and FilmOn have gone to court to establish that they can retransmit TV station signals without negotiating individually with stations.
The central requirement is that when you have copyrighted material you have to get permission, and that requires a negotiation. It seems to me they are unilaterally claiming a right that does not exist in law.

What will you do about it?
We will do anything and everything to protect copyrighted material of our members.

You were a legislator; what was your reaction to three former FCC chairs' admission last week that it was only politics, specifically pressure from Congress, that kept the newspaper cross-ownership ban on the books?
I really can't comment on Reed Hundt's claim. However, as a U.S. Senator, I supported reforming media ownership rules to better reflect changes in the marketplace. Now that my politics are the politics of local broadcasters, I'm hopeful that Congress and the FCC will update these rules to allow free and local broadcasters to remain competitive in a multi-channel world. If we can save jobs in journalism by allowing a broadcaster and a newspaper to combine operations, isn't that a good thing?

Do you have any concerns about the pace of the media ownership rule review?
It is simply an administrative process that will move at its own course. I always worry that when things go quickly there are unintended consequences that create problems, and not just in the House of NAB.

What does the FCC need to do?
They have to be fair and recognize the realities that exist today and not yesterday.

And that would include allowing more stations to combine?
It may in some markets. And I think that is why it is so hard and imprecise a judgment that has to be made because in some markets the biggest problem is getting sufficient capital to have a product to market.

Another part of that is the FCC's future of journalism review. Do you support a government bailout of the journalism business?
No, I would not support the government being the arbiter of what is good journalism. I think clearly journalism is fractured dramatically by the Internet and the blogosphere and people in the younger generation are finding other ways to get their news and information than the old-fashioned ways. But, that said, I think it is up to all of the traditional media to find their way in this new era and to start to create business models that work.

What are your views of the federal shield law that still hasn't been able to pass?
I was part of that debate many times in Congress. There is a tension that exists between security and liberty that is imprecise. It is difficult to find a proper balance. Reporters have to have the right to investigate.

Discretion wasn't used [in Congress] when it came to classified information that was life-threatening to other Americans. It is a very hard line to find and that creates the tension. I have voted for shield laws, and I have voted against some iterations of shield laws. And I think they are getting it right now.

But there is a tension between First Amendment liberties and requirements to provide for the common defense.

Mobile DTV is still being tested, but there is also still no deal with a cellular carrier to offer the service. How important is that and when is that happening?
I think it is very important.  It is, again, one of the promises of the digital transition. In the coming days mobile will be a feature on many different devices. I heard that either Audi or Ford are going to announce at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show that they are putting mobile TV's in their cars.

I just think that localism-weather, news, sports-are things that will ultimately be demanded by consumers and will be on the platform of the 21st Century.

Should there be a legislative mandate for a DTV tuner in handsets?
There are some who make a strong public safety argument, but that is a debate that has not fully ripened. In the end it would be my philosophical hope that the market would adapt to these things and that we get beyond mandates and we get to a place where there is a merging of the public interest and a market adaptation of it.

But aren't you seeking an FM tuner mandate?
The same arguments apply. Mandates are hard to get unless there is a good public policy reason related to safety for their inclusion. I voted to mandate when it related to automobile issues, when it related to keeping children safe in car seats. Congress is very capable of issuing mandates when markets don't respond to them but the public interest outweighs that. My philosophical presence is that ultimately the marketplace will see a responsibility in including platforms like broadcasters provide in the devices people use today.

So, if it doesn't, do you think Congress should?
We have many times in Congress.

Speaking of Congress, when is it that you get to directly contact members? As a former Senator, Smith was prevented from lobbying for two years after leaving office.)
On January 1.

How will your job be different?
It will be nice to be able to pick up the phone and talk to my former colleagues and current friends without that impediment. But I have not found the restriction overwhelming because they will often ask me to testify before committees and we have a great government relations department that does a great job of reaching out to all the offices of senators and congressmen.

The FCC is so broadband-centric these days. How do you cut through that to get your message across?
With persistence and with the law. If I have a concern with the broadband-centricity that seems to be in the mind of many it is that the false choice seems to be there that it is one versus the other. Broadcasting in my opinion is the essential if not indispensable player in telecommunications because of its one-to-everyone transmission, there is nothing like it in the world. All the broadband in the world can't replace the efficiency of that transmission of what is free and local and highly informative and useful to the American people.

We just feel earnestly that those who would say that the government has a role of picking one over the other are mistaken. There is room for both and the American people in the end will require both.

So, what will the Congress look like after November?
Clearly I sat on one side of the aisle, but now my politics are the interest of broadcasters. My experience on the Commerce Committee with broadcast issues is that they don't register Republican or Democrat. Some of our best friends to broadcasters are John Dingell and many we count among the Democrats.

Our job will be to make friends on both sides. That has been possible in the past when Congress was run by Republicans and it has been certainly true this time when it has been run by Democrats.

Do you think the House will be run by Republicans, and won't that make your job a little easier?
I am not a pundit and I read what pundits say. What I am hearing is that the Republicans will pick up somewhere north of 40 seats. So, whether we are dealing with a Fred Upton or a Joe Barton or Cliff Stearns or John Shimkus [on the Republican side] or a Henry Waxman or Rick Boucher or an Ed Markey, we have friends on both sides.

As someone always described as a moderate Republican, I have found the same warm welcome among Democratic friends. The warmest welcome I have received was from John Kerry. It was a great embrace, no kiss. We were friends still. I am not just shining you on here. What I love about broadcasting issues is that it fits in as how I operated as a Republican senator. That is, to see a problem, bring reasonable people together and find good solutions. I did that every day I went to work as a Republican senators with Democratic senators. I am able to do that at NAB because our issues fit that mold perfectly.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton

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.