Mr. Smith Goes to Las Vegas

National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith goes into this week’s big NAB Show with an eye on what he sees as a bright future for the industry — one that could get even brighter with some help from an FCC chairman who signals that he’s always recognized the value of broadcasting and now has the power to turn those convictions into policy.

Smith took a few minutes out of a busy pre-convention week to talk about FCC chief Ajit Pai, the post-incentive auction repack and more with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton. An edited transcript follows.

What are your initial thoughts about new FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who will be attending the show?

Well, my initial impressions are not ‘initial’ at all.

I have known him for many years, since the days when he was a young staffer for [former] Sen. [Sam] Brownback [R-Kan.] on the Commerce Committee [Smith is a former Republican senator from Oregon and member of the committee]. Even then, he struck me as unusually smart and incredibly earnest.

He now is longer in experience and courageous in his public service. So, I count him as a friend for nearly two decades.

What are your impressions of his approach to regulations and his policy agenda?

There are no surprises. He has been very forthright in his views, and those haven’t changed. He speaks not only positively about broadcasting’s place in telecommunications [Pai told B&C that broadcasting was a ‘very important value proposition for consumers,’ see page 8], but he actually does deeds that evidence the positive comments that he makes.

For example?

He has put next-gen 3.0 on the calendar [he plans to issue an order on ATSC 3.0 testing by year’s end], is interested in and passionate about AM revitalization, has rescinded the arbitrary order of previous years affecting [joint sales agreements] and [shared services agreements] and he remains open to always giving us a fair hearing, even when we disagree.

What issues do you have with the FCC’s post-auction repack framework?

We have certainly expressed to him an appreciation for his concerns about the sufficiency of the dollars [$1.75 billion] and the time for the repack [39 months]. He is very aware that this is something he inherited, but something by which he will be judged in terms of his efficiency. He has made it very clear he wants this to be done in an orderly way with all deliberate speed. But he also recognizes the complexity of moving 1,000 TV towers, many of which have colocated radio, and I think he is getting his hands around what is a herculean task.

What are the most important things a Pai FCC has done to improve broadcasters’ competitive position?

On the TV side, by starting the rulemaking on next-gen TV. That forecasts a very, very bright future for broadcast television. He has given voice to that in the past and now he is acting on it.

Talk a bit about the promise of that ATSC 3.0 next-generation standard.

It obviously makes more efficient the remaining spectrum that we have. It’s more than just better pictures; it’s IP interoperability, it’s immersive sound. It’s adding value to our architecture as nothing else can do or has done in the past. It’s a dramatic improvement in broadcast transmission, and I have to add emergency alerts. One of the best, most important aspects of 3.0 is as it relates to public service and alerts. The ability to wake up sleeping devices and provide detailed, localized information that can truly be life-saving is a feature that we do not now have, and which we can have to the great benefit to the safety of our society.

NCTA-The Internet & Television Association has pulled the plug on its INTX convention. Should we expect NAB ever to follow suit or have you benefitted from the absence of that show, which had also been targeted for the end of April?

We will not be pulling the plug. What happens on the cable side didn’t hurt us, but it remains to be seen how much it helps us. But independent of anything going on at NCTA, we keep investing in our show to make it bigger, broader, better for more and more sectors.

NAB has been talking up convergence and some of the online players who will be at the convention. Is that a branding strategy to draw former INTX folks, or is there something more going on?

I think it is just a recognition that we are more than just cameras, lenses and screens. We are very much about content and multiple platforms and to use broadcast architecture to be present and efficient on all devices. We are bigger than dad’s NAB.

What is the current state of your industry and what will be your message to convention-goers?

The state of our industry is good and has the potential to get much better, both for radio and TV. I don’t think I am giving away state secrets to say what I will be talking about is challenges, choices and principles and the constants in any industry’s life are choices we make and consequences we reap.

What are some of those challenges?

On the TV side, because we have such a reduced spectrum presence, the complexity of moving to 3.0, the complexity of repacking are all things that will challenge the best in us to be creative and courageous in shaping the future instead of being shaped by it, or the views of others.

And let me just say something more about chairman Pai. I think he is a guy who long had convictions about good public policy and how it translates to the benefit of the American people. What that means in terms of broadcasting is that, while his words are not new, as chairman of the FCC he now has a greater ability to turn those convictions into policy.

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.