At NAB Show, Broadcasting Bigwigs Call for New TV Standard to Reach All Devices

NAB prexy Smith, Univision chief Saban call for standard to deliver broadcast TV on all platforms, hold line on retrans fees

National Assn of Broadcasters NAB

Las Vegas — National Assn. of Broadcasters president and CEO Gordon Smith and Univision chairman Haim Saban issued a call for a new broadcast standard that would put television on all platforms and devices.

Smith and Saban, speaking at the opening session of the 2014 NAB Show here, drew battle lines between broadcasters and what they define as a hostile FCC, especially federal policies that they say favor broadband over broadcasting.

Smith praised the efficiency of broadcasting’s one-to-many technology. “The wireless industry covets our spectrum, because they chew through their massive allocation of spectrum, attempting to deliver the video we deliver far more efficiently,” he said. But his embrace of the idea of a new TV standard amounts to an admission that broadcasters will be at a disadvantage until their programs are on tablets and smartphones as well as TVs and radios.

“In order to continue adapting and responding to consumers’ demands, I believe television broadcasting should seriously consider the challenges and the opportunities of moving to a new receiver standard,” he said. “This would allow stations the flexibility and efficiency they need to innovate, to better serve their viewers and compete in the mobile world, and to find new revenue streams.” In his keynote, Smith delivered his usual paean to broadcasting as a localized, diverse industry that provides essential public services.

TV broadcasters are suing Aereo, a startup that streams TV signals over the Internet to multiple devices without the industry’s permission, with the Supreme Court scheduled to hear the case later this month. A new TV broadcasting standard, as outlined by Smith, could let stations themselves stream live TV more easily to multiple platforms.

It’s not the first time Smith has broached the topic at the NAB Show, but this year his message was stronger. And minutes later, in a keynote conversation with Smith, Saban was yet more emphatic.

“I believe it is vital for the broadcasting industry,” said Saban, “to develop a standard that will allow us to deliver our content to all platforms, all the time. I urge the ATSC to seriously not consider anything else but this option… If we do not develop that new transmission standard, we’ll be left back in the 20th century. Which is where the FCC has us.”

Saban told the hundreds of broadcasting pros gathered at the LVH Hotel & Casino that failing to develop such a standard is not an option. “There are a lot of smart people here. We’re not going to let it happen,” he said. “It is not just important — it is vital for us to be able to deliver that signal. It is vital for us to have a new transmission standard. People that work on this, they have their marching orders: Make it freakin’ happen.”

The tensions between the FCC and the broadcasting industry were a recurring theme of the session. Both Smith and Saban stressed the need to preserve the current retransmission-consent process. “The government should continue to encourage fair and market-based negotiations,” said Smith. “Government interference would only tip the scales toward pay TV providers, whose endgame is to drive free TV out of business.” Smith assured the gathering that the NAB “will not let down our guard” on retrans fees and other issues of concern to broadcasters.

Later, Saban quipped, “You know what FCC stands for? Friendly Cable Commission.” He said the idea that cablers would resell broadcasters’ content without paying for it made no sense. “At Univision, we’re underpaid for our content. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.”

Smith said that the government treats the broadcasting industry “as if we’re dinosaurs” and is trying to push TV stations out of business. “On the other hand, the FCC says we’re so important and so powerful, that two television stations can’t share advertising in the same market, when multiple cable and satellite stations can do the same thing. So which is it? Too powerful, or irrelevant?”

Smith criticized the FCC’s spectrum incentive-auction process as well. “While we understand the goal of freeing up spectrum, an equal aim should be to ensure that broadcasters and their customers are not harmed in the process. But at the moment it is an open question whether the FCC has balanced these aims.”

Noting that the FCC had reversed some longstanding policies on sharing, Smith said broadcasters are finding it hard to trust the FCC. “How can we be sure the carpet won’t be pulled out from under us again, even after we’ve followed the rules?” He said that to restore trust between the FCC and broadcasters, the FCC should work collaboratively with broadcasters.

Smith also renewed his call for a National Broadcasting Plan to stand alongside the federal government’s National Broadband Plan.

The other highlight of the opening session was a the presentation of the NAB’s Distinguished Service Award to Univision’s Jorge Ramos. Ramos is the first Hispanic to receive that award.

Ramos noted the “Latino Wave” sweeping the U.S., with the number of Latinos expected to reach 155 million in 30 years. Pointing with pride to last summer, when Univision was the No. 1 network in the U.S., he said, “We want to be No. 1 not just for one summer, but year after year after year. And I think we can do that.”

Ramos added that though some have doubts whether journalists can compete in a world where billions have cellphones and do their own reporting on news events through social media, “I would argue journalists are more important than ever before, because we can put information in context, we can tell what’s real from what’s false, because we know what’s relevant, because we know what news will affect your life.”

But more than that, he said, journalists must speak truth to power. “Sometimes we say to be neutral is what we do as journalists. But I think we’re wrong about that. Sometimes I think that’s an excuse not to do our job. Many, many times journalists in this country are way too close to the powerful, and as journalists, we have to make them uncomfortable.”

Citing the need to confront the leaders of Venezuela about killings of students there, he said, “I think it’s great we’re talking about Ukraine, but I don’t understand why we aren’t talking more about Venezuela.” And on the domestic front, he said, “If President Barack Obama wants to be a friend to the Latino community, first of all he has to stop deporting us.”

But all in all, said Ramos, “It’s a great time to be a Latino journalist. I think we have finally found our voice, both in English and in Spanish.”