Broadcasters battle FCC for airwaves

City vs. sticks in war for for spectrum

Gordon Smith likes to point out the irony: He’s a Republican talking “social responsibility.”

The chief of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, who lost his bid for reelection to an Oregon Senate seat in the Obama wave of 2008, now is warning the White House that the president shouldn’t violate his promise “to prevent a world of digital haves and have nots.”

“Do you forget the 43 million Americans who cannot afford a cable bill?” asks Smith in an interview at the org’s Las Vegas convention this week. “Do we have obligations to those people? My answer is yes.”

The issue is spectrum, a wonky term but at the center of a debate that is not that difficult to understand. With all the iPads and smart phones putting new demands on the airwaves, the FCC’s plan is for struggling stations to voluntarily put up their share of spectrum for auction and then share in the proceeds to wireless firms.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski calls it a win-win scenario; broadcasters fear it spells the end of TV as we know it.

Throughout the week at the sprawling convention, they expressed all sorts of scenarios that could come from it, such as degraded signals and local stations with less reach. As sprawling a convention as it was, with acres of displays of the latest and greatest technology, they pushed back against the notion that they were dinosaurs, dependent on the protection of their business model, and started laying down a rhetorical defense.

Genachowski says the auction idea is a key piece of America’s broadband future; Smith points out that if there’s anything Americans hate, it’s government messing with guns, religion and … their TV.

Genachowski says there’s “momentum” in D.C. for legislation to give the FCC the authority; Smith says debate has just begun.

He showed a willingness to frame this debate in terms familiar to D.C.: Sticks vs. city folk.

Smith asked during one speech, “Why should people in Kentucky … potentially have their signals degraded so urbanites in Manhattan can have a faster download of an app telling them where the nearest spa is located?”

In an interview, Smith says, “When it comes to the public airwaves there has always been a public sector social component to it, which is why the broadcast spectrum comes with localism, why it comes for free and it observes community standards of decency. If you want to take that away and give it to broadband, does that public asset come with the same criteria? The answer is obviously no.”

And what if mobile firms did have to make such obligations? Smith couldn’t resist another dig. “If you apply a decency standard to it, you collapse their business model.”

He says they aren’t against the idea of the auctions — which were endorsed by more than 100 economists this past week — but they have doubts that they will be “truly voluntary.”

It’s in broadcasters’ interest to posture at this point, but they still seemed skeptical even after Genachowski promised cooperation, and even compensation to stations for their troubles if they are forced to move channel spots. Smith suggests Congress right now is too consumed with other priorities to advance the spectrum auction bill any time soon, but if it does, it stands to become one of this year’s biggest showdowns, pitting one powerful, long-lasting lobby against the increasingly powerful wireless industry. The mobile side won’t be hesitant to delve into just how broadcasters have fulfilled their public interest obligations, and they won’t be shy about pointing out that as much as broadcasters lay claim to spectrum, it’s not theirs to keep, either.

But broadcasters won’t be afraid of using their reach. Last year, radio stations were fighting against another proposal: A plan whereby they would be required to pay artists when their songs were played over the air, just as they are for streaming and satellite radio. It, too, was a showdown. The music industry had high-profile artists to make their case; the NAB had the reach of its stations, and they labeled it a “performance tax.”

Imagine, then, ads warning that your free TV will be taken away. Would they unleash spots if a bill advances that they don’t like? Smith says, “The answer is, count on it.”

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