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Smith: Supreme Court Decision Allowing Corporate Political Ad Funding Good For Speech, Bottom Line

NAB president Gordon Smith called the Supreme Court's decision to allow more corporations and unions to directly fund more on-air political spots "a good one for freedom of speech."
His remarks came during an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators series (watch the video here), in which he also weighed in on spectrum--broadcasters want to keep it and aren't sure they will be able to share it -- indecency and more.

Smith voted against campaign finance reform as a Senator, he pointed out. But he also said he thought it could be good for the broadcasters coffers as well as the First Amendment.

"Ultimately you can't get on TV or radio without paying for it," he said. "Broadcasters have lots of costs in production of content. The American people rely on their TV's and radios, and ulimately I expect it will mean there is more political advertising."

Smith said the best part of the decision was that there remains "full disclosure," so that the American people can figure out "who is for whom, and why.

But Smith is for broadcasters in particular. "I think it does help [broadcasters]. At a time when advertising is down, perhaps political advertising will go up."

He was ready for the "elephant in the room" question about the FCC's interest in broadcasters' spectrum.

"Digital TV should not be sacrificed on the altar of the digital divide," he said.

A top FCC staffer dealing with spectrum reclamation has told Multichannel News that the commission is not out to force broadcasters off their spectrum and wants to preserve free TV. Is there a middle ground?

He said he was "still open to discussing this, but that broadcasters were using their spectrum efficiently already. "We're not saying no, blanketly. We're just saying 'let us see the proposal and we'll try to calculate it."

Smith also said a problem is that spectrum is not a "straight line" issue but a patchowk quilt of uses from community to community. He said he was not sure broadcasters would be be able to share their spectrum. "When you say take it back or turn it in, I don't know fully how that translates or whether or not we could share the space because the technology that broadcasters use is not compatible with the digital technology that one-to-one types of devices use."
He said that after all the billions spent on the digital transition, he thinks it would be "politically impossible" to sell a spectrum reclamation proposal that takes that spectrum back.
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski in announcing an FCC initiative looking at the future of media and journalism, said the financial meltdown a technological change has "called into question whether these media outlets will continue to play their historic role in providing local communities with essential news and information."

Smith agreed, laying that fate at the feet at government regulation that "with the very best of intentions" was counterproductive. He cited ownership caps and vertical ownership prohibitions as examples.

He suggested "some relaxation" of ownership rules or "allowing some vertical integration in some communities. While he said he was not necessarily advocating that, he called it a better solution than having government subsizide newspapers when they "are supposed to be the watchdogs of government.

When pressed, he that loosening duopoly rules or getting rid of the ban on newspaper-broadcast crossownership "makes a lot of sense."

Smith also talked about indecency enforcement -- broadcasters should not be regulated to the point of being "unduly muzzled," but said broadcasters understand their responsibility to be responsive to their communities.

He said that, speaking as a dad, he wished there were not indecencies on the public airwaves.

But Smith also conceded that the indecency enforcement regime puts broadcasters at a competitive disadvantage. "Broadcasters want to produce what our viewers want to watch, and they have all kids of options today, from indecent to obscene, and yet we have the restraint unique to broadcasting that we have a public responsiblity."

Smith said that, to make it fair, "everything ought to be regulated by the FCC, not just broadcasting." Asked whether he could be quoted on that, he backed off a bit, saying his point was that "the playing field isn't level on the issue of indecency."

C-SPAN's The Communicators with Smith bows Saturday Jan. 23 at  6:30pm (ET) with encores slated for C-SPAN 2 on Jan. 25 at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m..

John Eggerton
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.