NAB's Smith: Big Tech Should Get Public Interest Scrutiny

National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith said the government should start applying a public interest standard to Google and Facebook and other Big Tech titans. 

That was in an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators series with  C-SPAN's Peter Slen and Paul Kirby, senior editor at TRDaily and Telecommunications Reports.

Broadcasters have always been licensed in the public interest, which the FCC reviews, including various inherent and explicit obligations, when it grants those licenses or allows them to be sold. 

Related: DOJ Investigating Tech Giants 

Asked his take on Big Tech, Smith said Big Tech's private interests may no longer be in the public interest because they "buy up competition, bury competition, and stifle innovation and investment" because it is in their self-interest to do so. 

Smith said the Googles and Facebooks of the world are definitely media companies, airing programming and competing for ads and eyeballs. He welcomed the antitrust review the DOJ's antitrust division is launching against Big Tech.

He more than once invoked Teddy Roosevelt and breaking up the big trusts, saying the edge was getting to match the scale of those "robber barons." 

Related: Tech Giants Say They Face Intense Competition 

Smith leveraged that complaint about Big Tech to argue for why broadcast ownership should be deregulated.  

While broadcasters are kept small due to legacy regulations, he said, they are having to compete with "corporate nation states" like Google and Amazon and Facebook, which even is trying to launch its own (crypto) currency.  

He agreed with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that Congress needs to weigh in. He said he wasn't sure Congress would be able to deal with them, but he applauded the recognition that it had reached the point where they should try. So, if you are going to keep broadcasters in a box, recognize what our real competition is and either treat broadcasters fairly or deal with them the way you deal with us, he said.   

Smith also accused cable and satellite operators of "manufacturing" service interruptions because they don't want to pay what broadcasters' products are worth and said the government should start applying a public interest standard to the edge.  

Smith talked about the STELAR compulsory distant signal satellite license bill renewal. The license allows satellite operators to import distant network signals without having to negotiate independently, and to markets where they have chosen not to air local signals. He cited Bowling Green, Ky., one of a dozen markets where Dish has chosen not to carry local signals, but instead import distant ones. 

Smith said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York may not mind them seeing the distant signals (from New York and L.A.), but Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky probably does. He could have said that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky definitely does.  

Paul Thursday (Aug. 1) sent a letter to the bipartisan leadership of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees--who jointly oversee STELAR renewal (or not)--who said that his constituents "deserve and need access to local broadcasters." He said there was no technological reason for "a segment of the country" to be unserved by local TV stations and the STELAR law should sunset. 

Or as Smith put it to C-SPAN, Oklahomans should not be getting news about a dumpster fire in L.A. when a tornado is threatening them. He pointed out that even the Copyright Office is now saying STELAR should sunset, though to be fair it has been saying that for a while.  

Related: Trump Says Justice May Have to Act Against Edge 

Smith was asked about repurposing the C-band spectrum and its impact on the broadcast TV and radio networks and stations that rely on that satellite spectrum for program delivery. Some have suggested fiber delivery can replace satellite delivery for that programming, but Smith said absolutely not.  

He said everybody has had their cable cut by a backhoe at some point. He said fiber can be a redundancy, but not a replacement. 

He said NAB would propose replacing the spectrum with fiber, or doing anything that would interfere with those satellite transmissions. He said he knew his telecom friends wanted that spectrum for 5G, but it can't be at the expense of vital broadcast programming. He also put in a plug for retrans fees as a necessary second revenue stream given the fractionalization of the ad market. 

Smith said he took his hat off to the FCC for how it is handling the post-incentive auction repack. He said that repack, now in its fourth stage, is going well and that the FCC has been flexible about issues beyond broadcasters' control. But he said as the later stages approach and the winter months, the FCC needs to be cognizant of dangerous conditions for tall tower workers. 

As it signaled in its settlement of the Nexstar-Tribune merger, the Justice Department is not yet convinced that the ad market is that fractionalized, or at least its fractions--cable, digital, newspaper, billboard, etc.--are not sufficient substitutes for broadcast TV spot advertising.  

But it is taking a look at that market and its understanding of it, which Smith praised. 

The episode airs Saturday, Aug. 3, at 6:30 p.m. ET and Monday, Aug. 5, at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

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.