Disney TV Chief Ben Sherwood Urges Broadcasters to Take ‘Urgent, Smart Action’

NAB chairman Smith warns of TV station disruption after spectrum auction

Ben Sherwood
Chelsea Lauren/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

In recent years, the NAB Show opening keynotes have been marked by rancor and suspicion toward the FCC, hostility to pay TV and patriotic rhetoric about the vital role of broadcasting in American democracy.

This year, as National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith and Disney TV’s Ben Sherwood kicked off the trade show on Monday, the patriotism gained a note of populism, the rancor was toned down, and the focus turned more toward joining the future than fighting it.

“In candor, this is not a time for complacency. This is a time for urgent, smart action,” Sherwood told the gathering at the Westgate Hotel. He spent much of his keynote address laying out a threefold strategy for the TV broadcasting industry. The NAB appearance marked Sherwood’s most high-profile public comments since taking the reins of Disney/ABC TV Group in February 2015.

First, Sherwood said, broadcast TV should leverage its existing local base and “continue to build community and build connection.”

“What we can do in ways no one else can match is bring people together,” said Sherwood, observing that U.S. broadcasting is a $1.24 trillion industry and supports 2.65 million jobs.

The second prong of his strategy, he said, is “relentless focus to innovation. Static has always been a bad word in television, and today static, stasis, is a dangerous word.” He announced a new “ABC Clearinghouse” initiative for program distribution, with DirecTV and Sony PlayStation Vue among the first providers to be part of the effort to accelerate the expansion of authenticated streaming via ABC’s affiliate stations.

“The third way forward: Make great stuff,” said Sherwood. He noted that “great storytelling is timeless” and pointed to ABC’s relationship with showrunner Shonda Rhimes as an example of the network’s “Elvis strategy,” that focuses on great topline talent.

In his state of the industry address, Smith noted that the long-planned spectrum auction, which shifts some frequencies from TV stations to mobile providers, began last month. In years past, Smith’s position on the auction was defensive. This year, he said, “It’s been an enormously complex undertaking, and the FCC deserves an enormous amount of credit for bringing the auction to this point.” But he warned that of challenges ahead as “the majority of remaining broadcasters will have to move their channels to make room for the wireless carriers.”

“Policymakers should, and I believe they will, make sure that the time and the funds that are necessary are in fact sufficient to allow broadcasters to complete the move,” said Smith.

Smith also warned that FCC policies have “unwittingly put us on an unnecessary collision course toward two Americas: one where the video future is available to those who can afford to pay, and one where they cannot.” He tied that notion to retransmission fees, warning that if the FCC overturns them, “the FCC may then guarantee that the content viewers most need, the content they most want, the content they most enjoy — well, then that content will only be available for those who can afford it.”

Smith has previously urged the broadcasting industry to embrace next-generation TV standards. This year he announced that the NAB, along with consumer electronics, public safety and public television advocates, has filed a petition asking the FCC to approve a next-gen TV standard “for those who voluntarily choose to adopt it.” How such a voluntary switch would work is not clear, as then neither the current digital TV standard nor the new standard would actually be “standard.”

The new TV standard, known as ATSC 3.0, is getting its first U.S. demonstration at the NAB Show’s Futures Park. It will include UltraHD, enhanced sound and the ability to send TV signals to mobile devices.

Both Smith and Sherwood jabbed at presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Smith, a former two-term U.S. Senator himself, said “It is true we are in an age of information overload such that bumper-sticker simplicity, such as ‘Feel the Bern’ or ‘Make America Great Again’ somehow seems to move votes.” Later Sherwood joked: “We live in interesting times, an unruly, unpredictable moment, and we have Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to thank for part of that.”