The FCC chairman's speech to advance his plan to move TV spectrum to wireless broadband fell on mostly deaf ears. Genachowski recognized broadcasters' concerns, but really didn’t address them. What he did make clear is that he views wireless broadband as the big game and that it is his job to feed it with as much spectrum as he can find. In his mind, broadcasting is nice; broadband is “essential.”
Genachowski’s NAB Speech A Wasteland
Speeches by FCC chairmen at NAB conventions are not much remembered, the one exception being Newton Minow’s 50 years ago, in which he famously described TV as a “vast wasteland.” Minow was apparently no fan of the TV western, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Rawhide (starring Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates) and Have Gun Will Travel were all in the top 10 that season.
Genachowski’s speech on Tuesday in Las Vegas will not become the second exception. If his purpose was to build some support for his incentive auction plan from among his attentive audience of station owners and manager, then I would have to say that the speech was not only unmemorable, but also a failure.
Going into the breakfast speech, broadcasters were highly skeptical of his plan, figuring that one way or another it would ultimately diminish their over-the-air signals, which they see as crucial in the increasingly wireless, mobile media world. Coming out, they were still highly skeptical and grumpy — the watery scrambled eggs and tepid coffee not helping anyone’s mood.
The establishment broadcasters who control the NAB and intend to hang on to their spectrum are chiefly worried about what will happen to them after the FCC auctions off the spectrum of weaker stations and repacks the band.
“My concern is not so much with the auction as it is having sufficient prospective language in [authorizing legislation] as to repacking so our signals are not degraded, our opportunities aren’t diminished and our costs don’t go up,” NAB President Gordon Smith told me in a brief interview the day after the speech.
Genachowski recognized the concerns, but really didn’t address them, other than to promise that non-participating broadcasters wouldn’t be forced into the VHF band and would otherwise be treated “fairly.” He probably hurt his cause by suggesting we say “realignment” rather than “repacking.” I become suspicious when the other side tries to change the language in the middle of the debate.
What Genachowski could have done was give broadcasters a date certain for the release of the engineering models that would show what the station assignments and coverage areas will be after the auctions and repacking in various scenarios.
For more than a year now, broadcasters have been patiently waiting for the models so that they can start to determine just how much they stand to lose in the process. Every day the FCC delays in releasing them adds to broadcasters’ distrust.
On a panel the day before, Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake guessed that the models would be out in the “next few months.” I am going to take that to mean the end of July. Genachowski should make sure the staff meets that deadline. He has no right to scold broadcasters for employing delaying tactics on the Hill, as he tacitly did in his speech, while sitting on those models.
The more fundamental problem with Genachowski’s speech, however, was its fundamental message: wireless broadband is the future, and broadcasting is more or less in the way.
Genachowski talked about broadcasting efforts to reinvent itself, but it was done in a perfunctory way. Genachowski makes it clear that the big game is wireless broadband and that it is his job to feed it with as much spectrum as he can find. In his mind, broadcasting is nice; wireless broadband is “essential.”
Only by embracing new media does broadcasting win points at the Genachowski FCC.
Whether true or not, no broadcasters wants to sit through a bad breakfast listening to why the FCC wants to take his or her spectrum — ‘’the air we breathe,” as one NAB session put it — and give it to a competitor that is vying for its viewers.
“Most Americans can’t imagine life without the Internet or their wireless devices,” the chairman said. “We rely on them for everything from entertainment to checking job listings to staying in touch with friends and family.”
Maybe so. But it may also be true that most Americans can’t imagine life without their local TV and radio — free to all, and there in times of crisis with helicopters, roving cameras and professional journalists who try to get it right.
And speaking of radio, Genachowski chose to ignore it. I guess it doesn’t matter to “forward thinkers” like him anymore. The slight is inexcusable. I would argue that, today, April 15, 2011, 90-year-old radio is more vital to commerce, entertainment, news and public affairs in the U.S. than all 10 gazillion iPhone and iPad apps. He had all kinds of numbers about the use of new media. He ought to count AM radios still in use.
Genachowski also strayed into sketchy territory when he started talking about which TV stations were spectrum-worthy and which were not.
“Of the 28 commercial over-the-air stations in the New York market, only six invest in news coverage of any kind,” he said. “In Los Angeles, it’s eight out of 23. Some stations choose not to invest in this type of content, and some simply can’t — it just doesn’t make economic sense for them. But it does affect any objective analysis of broadcast markets in view of national spectrum needs.”
NAB’s Smith also thought it was an odd place for Genachowski to be. “I think he was saying you could cull the herd on the basis of the FCC making a judgment as to winners and losers,” he said. “It will be a new feature of the FCC to be the judge of content, which is an interesting counterpoint to the First Amendment.”
(I should note here that my friends at TVBR.com reported that Genachowski’s fact-checkers had failed him. TVRB found at least 12 stations with news in New York and 14 in Los Angeles. Some of those stations are commonly owned so the number of entities actually investing in news may be somewhat fewer.)
The speech wasn’t all bad. In addition to promising not to crowd anyone into the VHF backwater, he pointed out that he has resisted calls for the FCC to get into retrans disputes with cable and satellite carriers. And he hinted that he might be willing to lend broadcasters a hand in other matters without presenting it as a quid pro quo.
“The FCC will…look at whether there are regulatory barriers that can be reduced or eliminated, or initiatives that should be considered, to support the efforts broadcasters are making to reach the audience that’s increasingly relying on broadband-connected computers, smartphones and tablets,” he said.
“One area for inquiry: is there anything that can be done to accelerate measurement of audience on digital platforms?”
After it was all finally over, Genachowski took no questions, which is in some sense understandable. Inevitably, some station owner from a small market would have gotten to his feet to berate him for an injustice inflicted by the indifferent and uncaring bureaucracy he leads. Who needs that? But I would say that taking such verbal blows is part of his job.
Which brings me to the annual awards breakfast of the do-good Broadcasters Foundation of America on Wednesday morning.
In accepting one of the Ward L. Quall Pioneer prizes, longtime communications attorney Erwin Krasnow figured he had to inject a little humor into the proceeding so he dredged up some from his vast wasteland of jokes. It serves as a perfect coda to this column:
After his famous 1961 NAB speech, the joke goes in Krasnow’s telling, Newton Minow is confronted by an irate broadcaster, who tells him that he has insulted the entire broadcasting industry that he is going to send a telegram to President Kennedy demanding his immediate resignation.
Not used to such abuse, Minow is shaken. But an aide sidles up to provide solace. “Don’t mind him,” he says. “He has no mind of his own. He just repeats what everybody else is saying.”