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NAB to Supercommittee on Spectrum Reclamation: Diverse Content Hangs In Balance

The National Association of Broadcasters message was clear Tuesday, saying that the FCC's plan to take back as much as 120 mHZ of spectrum and auction it for broadband wireless is a threat to the multicast digital channels that NAB President Gordon Smith said are the best way to get diverse content to minority populations that are disportionately over-the-air viewers.

Smith said NAB understood there was a spectrum problem, though he suggested a spectrum crunch might be a planning and hoarding issue by wireless companies rather than a technical limitation -- he cited a Sprint exec's reported statement last week that the crunch was an issue more of planning than capacity. But Smith also said that given that problem, the coalition was meant to send a signal to Congress, and particularly the deficit reduction supercommittee currently considering spectrum incentive auctions, that "if auctions go forward, please protect the signal contours of the television broadcasters. If [repacking] is done incorrectly or even wrecklessly," he said, "one of the things that will be sacrificed will be multicasting and mobile." He said that would remove a foothold for diverse broadcasters in favor of faster app downloads.

To make that point, NAB held a press conference at its Washington headquarters to announce the official launch of the Future of Television Coalition, an effort to turn a debate Smith conceded had been shaped by NAB's opposition on the issue spectrum reclamation. The coalition is promoting mobile DTV, diversity and, in the process, making NAB's political pitch that broadcasters should not be kneecapped in the spectrum reclamation process or sacrified to the one-to-one wireless technology that is inferior to over-the-air for video delivery

Helping NAB make the point about the importance of broacasters' continued access to digital multicasting spectrum was Bounce TV co-founder and former legislator, mayor and ambassador Andrew Young, and by extension his partner in the effort, Martin Luther King III. The African American-targeted channel has been building distribution through multicast station deals, the latest with Gannett for WUSA Washington, which was announced at the press conference. WUSA weeknight anchor Derek McGinty was in attendance covering the press conference for the station. Also in attendance was David Lougee, President of Gannett Broadcasting, pitching the value of Mobile DTV -- Gannett is a member of both the Open Mobile Video Coalition and the mobile content consortium coming up with programming for the service. Lougee assured Young Bounce would be up and running on WUSA spectrum by New Year's Day.

Young pitched the Bounce muilticast service as an opportunity for small businesses that could not afford ads on larger networks, but could on Bounce TV. "We feel this is an opportunity that has been overlooked," he said. He also talked about being able to broadcast local sports, including high school, and a group in Atlanta that is contemplating the return of Friday Night Fights.

Also passionately pitching the need to preserve over-the-air TV was Carmen DiRienzo, president of VME Media, a Spanish-language network carried on noncommercial multicast stations and created with the idea of using those multicast channels to reach the almost one-fourth of Hispanic households that are over-the-air only. "Digital Television is a huge, free and important part of the digital future," she said. "It's absence would diminish the amount, quality and diversity of voices, thought and experience that VME and other networks like it provide." She said that if free, over-the-air TV were not protected, it would "disenfranchise millions of Americans and most especially the very hard-working, inspiring Latino's that VME and public television are so proud to serve."

Young was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Rep. James Clyburn, Democratic representative from South Carolina and the father of FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, to talk about Bounce. Young said he was trying to build a channel, but thought Bounce TV could also become a political force in the debate if they put it on the channel and also ran the ads of Antenna Direct, whose President, Richard Schneider, was also at the press conference.

Schneider's role at the conference was to make the point that cord-cutters were on the rise. He has been handing out free antennas, 1 million to date, to the unemployed and used a video to illustrate that the reception to his campaign handing them out in markets across the country has been greeted with long lines. Local TV stations have teamed up with the company to promote the give-aways. "I am hearing pronouncements that there is a decline in over-the-air," he said, while he is having to add shifts to keep up with demand for antennas. Schneider talked about an upcoming meeting with Wal-Mart, which he said plans to to create "a destination for over-the-air and over-the-top because they, like us, agree that the best value is over-the-air TV."

Smith said the FCC needed to consider that the 15% of Americans still reliant on over-the-air TV could increase, and that the FCC did not want to be regulating toward the past but looking to the future. "What if Richard is right, and the needle isn't falling, but 15% and rising. The challenge for the FCC will be about legislating for yesterday." What he said the coalition was "shining a light on," was that "the puck is going back to direct-over-the-air."

Smith pointed out that the government took about 30% of spectrum back in the DTV transition and that if the FCC took back another 120 MHz leaving only 30%, "it creates real problems for broadcasting."

McGinty said that when he turned on his TV he saw ads for DirecTV or FiOS or a cable company, asking Smith how important it was for him to be letting folks know broadcasting was still there. Smith said that he thought broadcasters "have not told our story well enough and I think we need to do a better job." He gave credit to cable and satellite and telco. "They are putting their money where their mouth is. They have shaped the debate. We are trying to reassert ourselves in this debate with the Future of Television Coalition." He said that while people have the "blessing of taking broadcast television for granted, there are decisions that could be made that may take that away from us." He said if NAB does its job that won't happen, but he can't assume that.

He said broadcasters should take as a "line item cost of business" reminding them why they could hit a switch and get free content.

Lougee pitched the potential of mobile DTV, saying that over 100 stations are currently delivering it. He pointed out that the DTV transition was only 28 months ago, and said more innovation, like combining TV spectrum with return-path providers to create VOD services, was on the horizon. "From a policy standpoint, this just got deployed in the middle of a recession."