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NAB President Gordon Smith Pours Oil on Troubled Airwaves

Former senator is both broadcasters' general and their ambassador to the FCC

One of the main duties of National Assn. of Broadcasters president and CEO Gordon Smith is to manage the relationship between stations and policymakers.

Rarely does an NAB Show go by without some sort of acrimony directed at the FCC — and, at times, visa versa — but this year’s gathering is the first since Tom Wheeler succeeded Julius Genachowski as chairman of the agency.

And these days, Smith has an ominous summary of the perception broadcasters have of the current D.C. regulatory environment: “Unduly hostile.”

The politician-turned-chief-lobbyist, whose sometimes biting remarks are mitigated by his smooth tone, says it was “too early too tell” if relations between broadcasters and the FCC will fare any better under Wheeler than they did Genachowski, who was often at odds with stations.

But stations have voiced strident opposition to proposals — unveiled during Wheeler’s term — to restrict joint sales agreements between TV stations, among other things. They also have been lukewarm to limits placed on stations from teaming up to negotiate retransmission consent with cable and satellite operators, in part because of the implication that it is broadcasters that are responsible for driving up subscription rates. Stations say such sharing arrangements are necessary to compete with the growth of cable, satellite and now broadband options.

“What I have tried to prevail on both chairmen is the indispensable nature of the broadcast signal, its durability. Its reliability. One to everyone, free and local, that is not replaced by another medium,” Smith says.

Smith, 61, joined NAB in 2009, after serving two terms in the Senate representing Oregon. During his tenure at the org, the FCC unveiled its National Broadband Plan, a roadmap for making high-speed Internet ubiquitous. It irked some broadcasters, who felt it implied that the future was not in one-to-many transmissions but one-to-one; in short, Internet, not broadcasting.

“What our government needs is not just a national broadband plan, it needs a national broadcast plan as well,” Smith says. “This chairman has seemed open to that, so I hope to develop that in the future. The beginning has not seemed too promising, but the hope will never die.”

A key part of the Broadband Plan is for broadcasters to voluntarily give up spectrum in exchange for sharing in the proceeds when the airwaves are auctioned off for wireless use. That “incentive auction,” slated for some time in 2015, depends on enough stations willing to participate, but Smith suggests Wheeler’s proposals are being seen by some stations as ways to nudge them along.

“If there is any connection (to Wheeler’s proposals) to warming up broadcasters to participate in the auction, it is having the opposite effect,” Smith says. “He assures me that they are totally unconnected. But in politics, perception is often the reality.”

Wheeler told reporters on Monday that any implication that he is sticking it to broadcasters to get them to participate in the auction is “baloney.”

The NAB also is competing against an increased lobbying push by satellite and cable firms to alter the rules that govern their negotiations with stations to retransmit their signals. Station blackouts, like that of CBS in its standoff with Time Warner Cable, have stoked the ire of some lawmakers, and are certain to be a factor as key House lawmakers consider large-scale revisions to communications laws.

“In that kind of rewrite, we can give as good as we get,” Smith says.


What: NAB Show
When: April 5-10
Where: Las Vegas Convention
Center, Las Vegas
Web: nabshow.com

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