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Smith has strong words for FCC

NAB president-CEO addresses music fees, spectrum

LAS VEGAS — You can take the pol out of Washington, but you can’t take Washington out of the pol.

In his inaugural state-of-the-industry address as president-CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, former Republican senator Gordon Smith adopted the language of Senate debate and butted heads with the Obama administration.

Smith outlined three main areas of concern: fees for playing music on the air; the National Broadcast Plan and the proposed spectrum give-back; and retransmission fees for broadcast TV.

On spectrum, Smith compared the FCC’s plan to the tactics of movie mob boss Don Vito Corleone.

Quoting from the plan that “the government’s ability to reclaim, clear and re-auction spectrum is the ultimate backstop against market failure and is an appropriate tool when a voluntary process stalls entirely,” Smith retorted, “This sounds about as voluntary as Marlon Brando saying in ‘The Godfather’ that he wanted either the guy’s signature or his brains on the contract.”

While applauding the FCC and chairman Julius Genachowski for “the truly comprehensive effort” they made to reach a national plan, Smith said, “Broadcasting is not an ATM that can keep spitting out spectrum. There is a minimum we need in order to be viable for the future, and to sustain the enduring value of free and local television.”

Smith argued that free over-the-air broadcasting is an essential homeland security asset, providing news and information in times of natural disaster and other crises.

He called the plan “an example of unnecessary government intervention” and argued for market-based approaches for solving the issue. But moments later, he cited “lewd and degrading content” of the unregulated Internet as a reason to prefer the regulated content proffered by broadcasters.

“If there is a broadband problem, we volunteer to help solve it. But let’s make sure we do it right. Let’s first get a comprehensive inventory of unused spectrum, as key lawmakers have suggested. Let’s explore whether digital compression technologies and other innovations can solve this alleged spectrum shortage, without forcing broadcasters off the air.”

Smith was no less shy about bringing the language of Washington politics to the issue of music fees. “Whatever you call it,” said Smith, “it’s basically a bailout of the major recording companies, three of the four largest of which are foreign-owned. I think the American people have had enough bailouts.”

He went on to compare record labels’ handling of the digital revolution to Louis XVI’s handling of the French Revolution. And he borrowed language from Sarah Palin in asking “How’s that lawsuit thing been working?”

He noted that just a few decades ago, record labels risked jail to give payola to broadcasters. “Can you name a single Grammy-winning artist that would be in that position were it not for radio?” he asked rhetorically.

On retransmission, Smith insisted broadcasters must be compensated for retransmission of their material and promised to lobby Congress to make sure that happens. Then, taking a veiled swipe at former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, he added “No matter what others may say, understand this: Broadcasting is a cornerstone of our democracy.”

Wrapping up, he called for the industry to be “united” to accomplish the work of the NAB. “Radio and television together. I mean networks and affiliates together. I mean small markets and big markets. There has never been a more important time for us to be together.”

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