Mark Aitken, Sinclair’s director of advanced technology, spells out a number of reasons why his company isn’t interested in giving up any of the spectrum now occupied by its 58 television stations. Besides the fact that he doesn’t think the government will approve of kicking back money to broadcasters for their auctioned spectrum, there’s a much bigger — and potentially game-changing reason: mobile DTV.
The FCC cash-for-spectrum proposal has stirred up broadcasters as little else has over the past several years. It has also brought them together in opposition to the proposal, despite its promise that stations would share in the proceeds from the auctioning of the spectrum to wireless operators.
Among those rising in protest is Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Baltimore-based group with 58 TV stations in 35 markets. Sinclair was part of a coalition of station groups along with LIN, Nexstar and others that dutifully expressed its objections in formal comments on the FCC’s proposal.
Here, in an interview with TVNewsCheck, Mark Aitken, Sinclair’s director of advanced technology, picks up where the coalition’s comments left off and talks about one big reason why Sinclair isn’t interested in giving up any of its spectrum: mobile DTV.
The edited transcript:
So what don’t you like about this idea?
I guess the first thing is that there’s an assumption that there’s this huge broadband deficit in the United States, and that has yet to be proven. Second, everybody seems to have leaped to the conclusion, having assumed that there is this broadband deficit, that the only way to fill that void is with broadcast spectrum. The third issue is, federal law says all auction proceeds for spectrum must go to the general treasury and broadcasters wouldn’t receive any of that money without Congress changing federal law.
But the law can be changed by Congress, correct?
I find that highly unlikely in this current economic climate. Do you think that anybody is going to bail out the broadcasters? Cash for what? Bailing out the broadcasters?
So you don’t think that the FCC can deliver on the deal?
No. I think that politically they would fall flat on their face.
The people who want to take away this spectrum also can’t answer the question of why is it that 36 percent of Americans that have access to the Internet don’t use it? Are we going to force people to use broadband? Do we have to say to everyone, thou shalt use broadband? Until they understand the needs and wants of the American population, they just can’t be dictating a policy that will fulfill those needs.
The proponents of this say that with so many people watching broadcast TV via cable or satellite, over-the-air broadcasting is not a very efficient use of the spectrum. How do you respond to that?
The fact of the matter is that virtually every American is getting broadcast television and it’s reflected in the numbers that Nielsen puts forward. They have access to broadcast television and I think that that truly is a centerpiece of American democracy.
First, the more than 15 million households that rely exclusively on over-the-air TV would beg to differ on the efficiency of broadcast TV.
Second, broadcast TV is a quality service that delivers whether there is one viewer or one million. We defy someone to ascribe a dollar value to public service benefits of wireless delivery in those critical instances long after satellite dishes have blown off rooftops and the cable has gone dark. It is those very emergencies when the public has relied exclusively on portable, over-the-air sets to receive the most critical life-and-death information that sets broadcasting apart.
Third, it is important to remember that subscription services are a competitor to free, over-the-air television and a successful effort to end that competition is in their best business interest and not in the best public interest.
Fourth, it is extremely short-sighted to presume that the current model in which viewers use a subscription service as their primary delivery medium would be the dominant consumer model going forward. Granted, large TVs in the family room may remain connected to a pay-TV service but, one only has to look at the proliferation of portable, mobile and pocket-size devices that are wildly popular with the public, especially our nation’s youngest. They crave news, information and entertainment on-demand and on devices that are independent of a wall outlet.
Lastly, the free, over-the-air aspect is the underlying foundation of localism that is unique to broadcasting. Contrast broadcast TV’s localism with the subscription TV and cellular phone service models. The subscription plan of a cell phone service provider is identical whether you walk into a store in Glendive, Mont., or Miami, Fla. On the other hand, broadcasters tailor their programming day — and in some cases, even the network programming — to meet the needs of their local markets. Often, there are vast differences in adjacent markets.
Getting back to your first point, the CEA, the CTIA and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski himself contend that there is a spectrum scarcity crisis.
OK. One can argue that stretched over whatever time period, spectrum is limited and therefore one must make wise use of the spectrum. Even if — but if — there were a scarcity of wireless spectrum, the backbone of any network must be interconnected, and this is not accomplished by wireless using broadcast spectrum.
The bigger issue for a national broadband policy is figuring out how the bandwidth distribution is done in an economic way. This will happen with physical infrastructure — fiber and copper — supported by a variety of radio devices operating in high frequency microwave spectrum. We need to stitch together a patchwork quilt that does of wired and wireless. Let us first understand what it is that we need to do before we jump into the “solution space.” The worst solutions are the ones formulated before the nature of the problem is adequately understood.
What if participation is voluntary? What if the FCC allows each licensee to decide for itself whether it wants to give up its spectrum? Then the FCC could pay them, repack the band and auction off whatever spectrum they get back.
I go back to my earlier answer. I don’t think the government’s going to pay a broadcaster to vacate that spectrum based on proceeds for that spectrum.
I do not believe that broadcasters are afraid to have open discussions regarding spectrum. Such discussion is good for all, and frames an understanding for all. At the same time, any discussion of repacking spectrum yet again must be led by a frank discussion of receiver standards.
The lack of clearly defined receiver standards is an obstacle that must be overcome. Broadcasters, who abide by very stringent broadcast standards, are hobbled when consumers are unable to receive over-the-air transmissions because the consumer electronics products are not built with the highest regard for the broadcast medium or because manufacturers have skimped on the cost.
That aside, wouldn’t eliminating some of the weak stations, the dead wood, benefit the strong stations?
I can’t speak for the broadcasters that might be tempted to take such a deal, but if they looked at the some of the potential in the spectrum that can be unlocked — mobile DTV, for example — they would have a much different view of the world. A lot of this deadwood that you’re talking about is deadwood because they’re in a regulatory environment that really stifles innovation.
I assume mobile DTV is at least one of the ways that Sinclair is going to unlock the potential of its spectrum. What’s your plan?
We were for mobile before mobile was cool.
The mobile plan is to extend the reach of our existing stations within our DMAs so that people can have access to broadcast television on the move. And it’s more than that. Just because it’s mobile and portable doesn’t mean that the only place that it gets used is outside the home. To a large degree, the mobile devices become personal viewing devices tailored specifically to the individual. Studies indicate that there is a strong component in both mobile and portable that is all about that device becoming the individual’s gateway to the media world.
Mobile extends the reach of our news organizations and the public service that we provide. We have got to make one thing very clear in arguing our spectrum case: public service is in our DNA. It’s not done just because it’s a matter of rule or a matter of law. It’s done because it’s the right thing to do. So mobile allows us to extend that reach. Who is it that provides the information in emergencies that that allows people to seek safety? Is that done by the wireless carriers? No. It’s done by broadcasters.
Do you have an idea of what you business model will be for getting started in mobile?
I would argue that the first business model will probably be the one that we know works. It’s the advertising-based model. It’s the ability to expand the number of eyeballs that are watching that programming. Simulcast. That’s the easy one and, by the way, that’s the one that our business partners — the local advertisers — are excited about.
What can mobile DTV do beyond simulcast?
[The Open Mobile Video Coalition] issued a document less than a month ago that talks about the various opportunities. It talks about simulcast, it talks about interactive advertising, it talks about direct audience measurement, it talks about polling, it talks about non-real-time playback of content. There are, I think, 19 high-level, business-use cases that are identified and all of those are going to be exercised in the consumer market trials starting in January in Baltimore and Washington. This is a fully organized, fully developed step-by-step approach. By the end of May or June of next year we will know exactly what it is that people like and dislike and where we need to be focusing those business efforts.
So Sinclair is going to spend the $50,000 to $100,000 per station to equip each station to offer some kind of mobile service after that?
We have committed to doing 10 markets. We’re going to do that in anticipation that post June, we will have identified what it is that people most like about the types of services that we offer. I’ve said this many times before: Anybody who says they know what the business model for mobile is, is exaggerating. They have got ideas of what they think it might be, but until you put it in the hands of consumers and let the consumers tell you what it is they like and dislike, then you’re simply guessing.
In the past, Sinclair has been highly critical of the ATSC transmission system, which is what all these services you talk about are based on. Given what you know now, can you tell me now that the ATSC standard is up to the task.
Here’s the reality: There is no other way to do it. It’s the only girl at the dance. We choose to dance.