NAB President Gordon Smith spells out the advantages of adopting the new next-generation TV transmission standard, but says his group must represent the wishes of “a majority our members.” And those members are divided. Talking to the New York State Broadcasters Association, Smith also addresses the spectrum auction and repack as well as efforts by cable and satellite to get retrans reform.
A week after the NAB’s spring board meeting, NAB President Gordon Smith said that “no decision” has been made to support the implementation of, and transition to, a new broadcast transmission standard.
ATSC 3.0, as the standard is called, would provide broadcasters with new capabilities, he said yesterday in a speech before the New York State Broadcasters Association.
“It will allow you to do mobile …. You will be able to continue with less spectrum to do multitasking, you will be Internet protocol interoperable, there will be a continued leverage at the retransmission table and maybe new retransmission customers.”
But whether to support the standard is not his call, he said. “It’s ultimately a decision of a majority our members.”
Smith did not say which members support ATSC 3.0 and which don’t.
But a split on the TV board over ATSC 3.0 surfaced at the NAB’s January board meeting. The Big Four networks opposed it, while network affiliates led by Sinclair and the Pearl group of major station groups supported it, believing it’s vital to their future competitiveness.
“We can sometimes find ourselves getting tripped up by how every member of the NAB views policy proposals through the prism of their own balance sheet and their balance sheet may be the product of pure broadcasting and it may be the product of programming. Those interests usually align, but not always do they align.”
Even with the full support of the industry, Smith said, it would not be easy to roll out ATSC 3.0, which is incompatible with existing TV sets.
The transition from analog TV to the current digital standard in the 2000s was successful, he said, but it was “extremely difficult” and expensive and was aided by the availability of extra spectrum. “We will not have that this time.”
With the extra spectrum, broadcasters simulcast analog and digital signals for years, giving consumers plenty of time to buy new digital sets or acquire government-subsidized digital-to-analog converters.
While saying he awaits instructions from the board on ATSC 3.0, he conceded it would help as a lobbying aid.
“I will tell you that part of the challenge I have had representing television broadcasting is we are viewed as yesterday, even though we are indispensable, irreplaceable as an industry.
“We are not showing [lawmakers] new stuff, and the new entrants into video are coming into the congressional offices every day with new-fangled gadgets saying: look at the future. We need to be doing that too.
“We have to have a technological advantage or offering if we are going to keep … policymakers still attuned to broadcasting. “
Just as he is trying to balance the interests of the ATSC 3.0 proponents and opponents, he said, he is trying to balance the interests of broadcasters who are eager to sell their spectrum in the FCC incentive auction next year with those who expect to sit out the auction.
The former want the NAB to help them maximize the value of their spectrum in the auction, he said. The latter want the association to make sure that their broadcast service is not degraded in the repacking of the TV band that will follow the auction.
“So I have two marching orders — protect and enable — and I am trying to do them both,” he said. “It’s easier said than done.”
Two issues Smith is working on on behalf of the broadcasters who remain in the business are the time they will have to do move channels during the repacking (39 months) and the money set aside to reimburse broadcasters for their repacking costs ($1.75 billion).
The reimbursement pool is not large enough and 39 months is not long enough, he said. And the way the law is written, stations that fail to repack in the time alloted “simply go dark,” he said. “Now I must tell you I don’t think that will happen because I don’t think members of Congress would permit it to happen.”
Running down some of the other issues he is grappling with, Smith said cable and satellite interests will continue to push for retransmission consent “reform” on Capitol Hill.
“Now, retransmission consent reform does not mean that you will lose the ability to retransmit,” he said. “What it does means is that there will be very intrusive government involvement, probably some kind of baseball arbitration in the negotiations.”
Here too, Smith provided reassurances. He said that retrans reform would come as part of a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act and that is “extremely difficult to do.”
“It takes winners and losers and I don’t believe anything will ultimately move on that. I have even been told that by very senior people in the House of Representatives.”