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NAB's Gordon Smith: We're Fine With House Version of Spectrum Bill

National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith said Thursday he recognizes that spectrum auctions are a "footnote" in the debate over the end-of-the year legislative package currently being debated and negotiated on Capitol Hill. "But we happen to be a footnote that is a pay-for," said the former Oregon senator, "and that is pretty valuable right now on Capitol Hill."

Smith was referring to the fact that the auctions are slated to provide $15 billion or so for deficit reduction after broadcasters are compensated for giving up or repacking spectrum and an emergency broadband communications network is paid for.

That observation came in an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators.

He also said that broadcasters weren't interested in indecency, but that viewers could get it if they were willing to pay for it. "If you have a subscription service," he said, "you can get all the garbage you want in your house," while broadcasters are more sensitive to community standards.

Smith said he expected spectrum auctions would be included in whatever must-pass bill passes. He said NAB is OK with that so long as broadcaster protections in the current House-passed version of the legislation is preserved, particularly including one directing the FCC to resolve issues with stations on the border with Canada and Mexico.

He also said he appreciated the Senate version, but that the "last pieces" NAB needed to give consumers service without interference and broadcasters to move without any more "detriment" than they included in the switch to digital, was provided in the House bill, which had more protections for broadcasters.

"We're fine with it going forward," he said of the House version. Smith said that broadcasters don't object to a voluntary reclamation. "Voluntary is just another word for freedom," he said. "We with the protections in the House bill, Congress has a pay-for, the FCC can do its work, and the American people, who count on free and local television will continue to enjoy it."

Democrats complained that the House version of the bill gives up to $3 billion to broadcasters who keep their spectrum -- and cable and satellite operators who retransmit their signals -- to cover the expenses of moving to a new channel or sharing channels. Smith said that the $3 billion was a cap. Asked by reporter Paul Kirby about that future, Smith said that the cost to broadcasters of the 2009 digital switch, which also included repacking channels, was $15 billion. Smith said he hoped it would me much less than $3 billion because he hoped there would not be that many who would want to move, but that he would not know until the FCC comes up with a plan.

He said anything that isn't spent will go back to the treasury. House Democrats complained that, if past is prologue, caps become floors because nobody wants to leave money on the table, as it were.

Smith said broadcasters have fought for viewer protections, rather than against spectrum auction authority. "Whether or not there is a bias at the FCC for broadband, I will let others judge that, but I think members of Congress have an interest in making sure this is done properly for their viewers."

Asked whether broadcasters were squatting on spectrum, Smith said NAB has pointed out for some time that there is spectrum that has been purchased by others with no plans for deployment. "We simply said that before you come and get us and compromise the future of broadcasting, which is still really important to local communities, why don't you go get that spectrum and put it to use."

Smith said it was not a spectrum crunch but a spectrum "planning crisis. We're not responsible for that," he added. He said he is fine with some stations giving up spectrum, and added that some in L.A. and New York likely will.

He did not have a prediction of how many broadcasters would take the FCC up on its offer to return spectrum, but said he knew of only a few who planned to "take the money and run," and they weren't the ones providing local news, weather and sports.

Smith said that viewers want video both on demand and live, which is why the FCC and Congress need to protect and preserve a "great, essential live, local, free industry to consumers."

National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell, Communicators' guest the previous week, argued that Congress has to migrate communications out of the regulatory buckets that the blurring of technology is making increasingly irrelevant.

Smith said Powell was "largely right," and that a "rifle shot" aim at the irrelevant was likely the best approach.

Asked to weigh in on FCC indecency enforcement, which broadcasters are appealing, Smith made it clear he was not fan of such content. He pointed out that if broadcasters wanted to be in the indecency business, they were free to be "as indecent as cable is" between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. -- the FCC's safe harbor for broadcast indecency.

"If you want to see things in your home that many would say are indecent, you have to turn to a cable channel or a satellite channel. They are not regulated by those local community standards. We are. Frankly, I'm good with that because as a society we're overflowing with the indecent and it has cultural consequences that are lamentable for families and our culture. But, you can get it, you just have to pay for it. If you have a subscription service you can get all the garbage you want in your house."

He said broadcasters aren't perfect, pointing to the fleeting expletive of wardrobe malfunction, but that they are attempting to be more sensitive to local standards of decency.

Smith said NAB supports both FCC nominees and hopes they are swiftly confirmed.