While the proposal being floated by the FCC’s Blair Levin to have TV stations give back most of their spectrum in exchange for a share of the money that would come from its auction to wireless broadband access providers is a creative idea, now is not the time for it. Broadcasters would be giving up on the potential of digital — multicasting, mobile video and things yet unknown — after having just spent a bundle to upgrade their transmission facilities to digital. Broadcasters should be given more time — perhaps another five years — to demonstrate that they can make something of their digital spectrum before the government moves to take it away.
Last month, I suggested here that broadcasters should consider the idea of giving back a big hunk of their spectrum in exchange for a share of the money that would come from its auction to wireless broadband access providers.
Well, since then, major broadcasters have considered it — and rejected it like an ad from a PI lawyer with bad credit.
As we reported on Wednesday, the FCC’s Blair Levin put the cash-for-spectrum idea before MSTV members at an Oct. 8 meeting in Washington. Then, the NAB board kicked it around at its meeting last week in Dallas.
Our story quoted a couple of station group heads at those meeting and I spoke with several more at the B&C Hall of Fame gala in New York Tuesday night.
Whatever Levin was selling, the broadcasters weren’t buying.
Broadcasters just aren’t ready to give up control of their own distribution and become, in essence, local cable programming services.
They point out that millions of homes still rely on getting TV off antennas, and many of them haven’t gotten over the trauma of moving from analog to digital in June.
The broadcasters also feel that they would be giving up on the potential of digital — multicasting, mobile video and things yet unknown — after having just spent a bundle to upgrade their transmission facilities to digital.
Broadcasters are particularly keen on mobile video. And to show the world they are, they made a big deal last Friday of the fact that the ATSC had finally voted out a final standard for it, even though that has been a fait accompli for some time.
I realize that universal wireless broadband access is a wonderful idea. Hey, I’m in the Web business myself.
But mobile video as envisioned by the broadcasters is too. I look forward to the day — and it may come within the next year or two — when I can tune into any TV station in New York on my cell phone no matter where I am. And I won’t have to pay for it. It will be free.
Of course, the broadcasters are business people. So, they are interested in any and all ways of making money, including cashing in on their spectrum.
But they are highly skeptical that the money that Blair was dangling before them would ever materialize. First of all, nobody really knows how much an auction of TV spectrum would pull in. Second, nobody knows what the broadcasters’ cut would be.
And whatever deal the FCC’s makes could easily be trumped by Congress. A lot of people, especially those who believe broadcasters have shirked their public service responsibilities, hate the idea of broadcasters being able to cash in on the public airwaves.
I noticed that Sen. John McCain was back in action this week, threatening to quash any net neutrality regulations the FCC might adopt. My guess is that he, among many others, would relish the chance to kill any deal that would result in broadcasters being compensated for “the public airwaves.” McCain has had it in for broadcasters for years.
Levin and his boss, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, can’t make the deal they are proposing. If broadcasters someday decide they want to trade in spectrum, they will need to go to Capitol Hill.
Levin should be commended for bringing the cash-for-spectrum idea to broadcasters. It’s exactly the kind of fresh thinking that smart policymakers should be cooking up. And it is based on the belief that broadcasters do have some kind of stake in the spectrum they use and paid for on the open market.
But it’s premature.
Broadcasters should be given more time — perhaps another five years — to demonstrate that they can make something of their digital spectrum before government moves to take it away.
If we are all sitting here in 2014 and I still can’t watch Judge Judy on my cell phone and the over-the-air audience has dwindled to two percent of the nation’s TV homes, then maybe it will be time to pry the spectrum away from broadcasters. But not now.
So, the FCC needs to put this idea on the shelf. Levin should not include it in his Feb. 17 recommendations to the commissioners, and, if he does, a majority should strike it.
In the meantime, it would make a lot of sense for the FCC to preserve the integrity of the broadcast spectrum by reversing its misguided white spaces decision and declaring that it will not allow any unlicensed wireless gizmos to clutter and devalue the band.
One more thought: So far, in our reporting, we have only spoken to the big groups, those with network affiliations, newscasts and digital ambitions.
There may be other broadcasters — independents, religious stations, even public stations — that are not making a go of it and would like the opportunity to recoup some of the investment in their stations by relinquishing their spectrum for cash.
So, perhaps the FCC can craft the spectrum-for-cash plan on an opt-in basis. Broadcasters who want out now can get out. Broadcasters who want to keep on playing can stay in the game.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be reached at 973-701-1067 or [email protected].