It would be best if FCC Chairman Genachowski sent his newest adviser, Stuart Benjamin, back to the Duke Law faculty where he found him. Suggesting that the FCC regulate broadcasters off the air is cynical and saying that the broadcast networks have been “more baleful than helpful” is just plain stupid. At the very least Genachowski should add some balance to his spectrum policy team. He could hire an adviser or two who has actually worked in broadcasting and believes in its future as an over-the-air medium.
I spent a few moments visiting the campus of Duke University on the Web this morning. On my 19-inch monitor, it’s a beautiful place — the neo-gothic Duke Chapel, the 55 acres of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the Nasher Museum of Art.
Duke, I also learned, has more going for it than Mike Krzyzewski (if you can’t pronounced the name, you’re no fan of college basketball). Did you know that its Lemur Center is the world’s largest colony of endangered primates?
So I don’t feel that I’m condemning Stuart Benjamin to any hardship when I say FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski should send him back to the Duke Law faculty where he found him.
As I reported here last week, Benjamin, whom Genachowski has hired as an adviser during his sabbatical, published a paper earlier this year that says the FCC should favor regulations that heap costs on over-the-air broadcasting and speed its demise so that the government can recover its spectrum and put it to better use.
“Every dollar of additional costs for broadcasters is one less dollar of profit, and thus reduces the attractiveness of over-the-air broadcasting as a business model,” he wrote.
This is the kind of thinking that could be caused by, say, a blow to the head by an escaped primate enraged by his species’ pending extinction. But it was no temporary lapse in reasoning.
The professor made the same case five years earlier in another paper, in which he analyzes whether the FCC should raise the national ownership cap on TV stations.
“Increasing the ownership cap means not only enhancing the ability of national networks to air programs, but also enhancing the networks’ viability, and the latter effect is one that America would do well to avoid,” he wrote.
“The impact of national broadcast networks, I argue, has been more baleful than helpful. We would look forward to their demise, or at least their migration to cable and satellite, so that the spectrum can be devoted to the highest valued uses.”
Baleful? That’s how you sum up the impact of the TV broadcast networks over the past 60 years — as, according to Merriam-Webster, “deadly or pernicious in influence” or “foreboding or threatening evil.”
Of the many hundreds words of his that I have read, I find that single adjective the most objectionable. And, of course, the idea is plain stupid. It makes you wonder what other whacked-out notions are floating around that campus.
As long as Benjamin remains an adviser to Genachowski, everything that comes out of the commission relating to broadcasting will be suspect. How much of this or that policy is intended to achieve the stated goal (more diversity, localism, better kids’ programming) and how much meant simply to weaken broadcasting so that the FCC can recover the spectrum for other purposes?
For Genachowski to deal with broadcasters on any issue, he has to establish an ample measure of trust.
Right now, he doesn’t have much. Many see him as another Reed Hundt, the FCC chairman for whom Genachowski worked in the 1990s. Hundt had little more than disdain for broadcasting.
And while the broadcasting reps respect Blair Levin — Genachowski’s point man on spectrum and another Hundt guy — for his smarts, they know he is no friend of broadcasting.
Genachowski actually was a broadcaster once. At Barry Diller’s USA Broadcasting in the late 1990s, he was part of the team that tried to build a TV station group around local programming. It was a big flop.
But Genachowski’s apparent takeaway from that experience was that broadcasting was played out. After all, he probably figured, if he and Diller couldn’t revitalize broadcasting, nobody could.
So far, Genachowski has shown little interest in broadcasting. It’s come up primarily in the context of Levin’s push to shift all or some of the broadcast spectrum to wireless broadband operators.
That has put broadcasters on the defensive, afraid to even talk to the FCC about spectrum. The presence of Benjamin is now pushing broadcasters from defensiveness to hostility.
It wasn’t just what Benjamin said, it was how he said it. To him, over-the-air broadcasting is something to scrape off your shoe before stepping into the future.
“Stunningly duplicitous and cynical,” is how one broadcaster active in Washington described Benjamin’s writings. “To hire someone with such a jaundiced and contemptuous perspective … is the juxtaposition of the transparent, fact-driven process touted by the chairman.
“My advice to the chairman is to throw this guy out. Unbelievable.”
Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, no doubt standing in for broadcasters at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing this week, called Benjamin’s 2009 paper a “real abomination.”
The FCC’s defense of Benjamin is a stilted prepared statement: “Stuart Benjamin is a tenured professor at one of the nation’s finest law schools and the author of the standard textbook on telecommunications law. He is joining the commission … in keeping with Chairman Genachowski’s overall approach of hiring extraordinarily talented people with wide-ranging viewpoints to enrich internal discussion within the agency.”
Kim McAvoy, our Washington reporter, and I had to laugh. The defense is that he has great academic credentials so what he says must be OK. I try to love these Ivy Leaguers (Genachowski is Columbia and Harvard and Benjamin is Yale), but it’s hard sometimes.
For the record, Benjamin isn’t all bad. He’s not advocating driving broadcasters out of business. He just wants to drive them off the airwaves. He believes that they can continue as cable channels and that idea has some merit.
He recognizes that broadcasters have some property rights in their spectrum and should be able to benefit in some way if it is taken away. (So does Levin.)
Plus, the Parents Television Council condemned him this week for suggesting that the indecency restrictions of broadcasting should go. In my book, that’s a solid recommendation.
Still, Genachowski ought to give him a one-way bus ticket back to Durham. If he can’t bring himself to do it, he should at least add some balance to his spectrum policy team. He should hire an adviser or two who has actually worked in broadcasting and believes in its future as an over-the-air medium.
The chairman may actually learn something.
And if the broadcasters’ mobile DTV effort fizzles and their over-the-air audience continues to dwindle and it comes time to talk about a spectrum deal, the broadcasters will have someone at the FCC they can talk to, someone they can trust.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected].