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NAB's Smith: Broadcasters Remain 'Just the Facts' Outlets

"Broadcasters recognize their core duty to provide the public with the 'popular information' required to help American citizens be their own governors," no matter who occupies the White House.

That was one of the messages of National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith to a group of media executives at the Media Institute's monthly luncheon in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

As broadcasters join in the digestion of post-election results, Smith emphasized that "the media" is not monolithic "other" but a complex mix of print newspapers struggling to survive, social media some see as a "Wild West" of misinformation, and even fake news.

Then there are the broadcasters that he argues, borrowing from Dragnet's Jack Webb, are the "just the facts" outlets that "provide information about issues that matter to people where they live. And, perhaps more importantly, local broadcasters are always the go-to lifeline in times of crisis."

Broadcasters, says Smith, deliver the news straight and without the shouting, finger-pointing and drama, adding: "As broadcasters, we carry the torch of freedom and integrity, and we must use this to question those in power and to find the truth."

Smith pitched the value of that service, which is "free with an antenna" and made a point he has made when talking about the FCC wanting to turn over broadcast spectrum to wireless providers. "Everyone wants what broadcasters have—our content and our spectrum—but nobody wants to do what we do—provide local news and information, live and free to all Americans," he said.

"Recently, the FCC voted to make expansive amounts of high band spectrum available for wireless services, including 5G service. This follows action after action where the agency has done whatever it can to help other industries lead the world in their respective services," he said. But Smith said the FCC needs to move with equal dispatch and enthusiasm to free broadcasters to use new ATSC 3.0 transmission technology to develop new products and services on multiple platforms, to "move quickly, unhindered by unnecessary regulations."

NAB has asked the FCC to act on its petition to roll out the ATSC 3.0 standard in tandem with the post-incentive auction repack while continuing to simulcast in the current standard (ATSC 3.0 is not compatible with current sets), but the commission has yet to act.

Smith will almost certainly have more support for that "unhindered" view in the administration of President-elect Donald Trump. Telecom transition advisor Jeffrey Eisenach has said government needs to help, or at least get out of the way of, innovative companies.

Smith suggested that a new administration would give broadcasters a new opportunity to tell their local success story.

NAB is keenly interested in the FCC spectrum auction but mostly focused on the impact on stations that stay in the business.

"We eagerly await the final stages of the auction to learn how many broadcasters will have to move their channels to make room for wireless carriers, and what resources will be needed to complete these relocations," he said.

Some estimates put the number of TV station moves at over 1,000, but the auction is now in its third stage, with each stage meaning less spectrum reclaimed and fewer station moves.

"We hope for a successful conclusion of the auction. We believe that policymakers will ensure there is sufficient time and funds available to allow broadcasters to complete their moves," said Smith.

"We must ensure that no viewer is left in the dark because a station is forced off the air or left to foot the bill for expenses that Congress did not intend and stations cannot afford."

Congress set aside $1.75 billion for that move, but NAB has always said that might not be enough. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has said he would lead the parade back to Congress for more funds if that were the case, but with a Republican administration taking over, that looks like it won't be happening. 

Just before Smith began his remarks, he presented a promotional NAB video extolling the role that broadcasters play in their communities.  One of the sequences showed a severe storm situation during which local broadcasters remain on the air but a close-up of a smartphone shows the on-screen message: "No Service Available."  Smith leaned over to Meredith Baker, president of CTIA: The Wireless Association, who was sitting two seats away and smilingly mouthed "I'm sorry." She waved her hand subtly and shook her head to indicate she didn't take it personally.

During the question period after his speech, Smith waved off questions about the reshaped nature of the FCC, contending that it's too early to make such predictions. Specifically addressing a question of whether  current Chairman Tom Wheeler's policies will be accelerated in the waning months of his majority role, or whether Wheeler will leave the Commission as is the tradition in January, Smith said, "I leave it to his good judgment."

In response to a question about the intertwined issues of the TV spectrum auction and the implementation of the ATSC 3.0 platform, Smith insisted that they will unfold separately.

"The auctions will be long over before 3.0 reaches the marketplace," he said.  "The outcome of the auction is not in our hands and we hope" it progresses smoothly.

"There are many complexities in the move to 3.0," Smith continued, after citing the oft-repeated benefits that the technology will bring to broadcasters.   He acknowledged that the 3.0 transition will be "expensive" but that his members are "are anxious to advance their businesses" through the services it will enable.  

"This is an option that recognizes good policy," Smith said.

Additional reporting by Gary Arlen