Local TV Will Prove Again It Deserves Better

If anybody really needed a reminder of the power of broadcasting, they got it on Tuesday when a rare earthquake shook things up in the same region that Hurricane Irene is now threatening. Given that, why is broadcasting getting so little respect in Washington these days? Perhaps the folks at the FCC, Congress, the White House, the Commerce Department and the Department of Homeland Security will want to think about what they can do for broadcasting once they tear themselves away from their TVs and radios after Irene passes by this weekend.

As I write, all along the Eastern seaboard, TV stations are alerting viewers to the dangers of Hurricane Irene. At the same time, they are implementing contingency plans for staying on the air and continuing to gather and report the news under the most extreme emergency conditions. I know this without even having to ask. It’s what TV stations do.

Without a doubt, broadcasting will be there throughout the weekend with authoritative, up-to-the-minute reporting on how the storm is tracking, what damage it is doing and what you need to know to keep safe. If one station gets knocked out, two or three others will be there with much the same information. In an emergency, is there really such a thing as too much redundancy?

And the information will be presented with real-time graphics by experienced meteorologists whose knowledge of storms is equaled only by their ability to communicate clearly, calmly and precisely.

It turns out that the head of FEMA has just as much confidence in broadcasting in all its forms as I do. “I think people … got so enamored with their smart phones and stuff [they] forget it’s your local radio and TV stations,” said Craig Fugate during an interview with CNN yesterday morning. “Those local broadcasters are going to be giving you the best information, real time, from those local officials out of those press conferences. So make sure you’ve got your radio and television.”

I would just add that local broadcasters do a lot more than relay information from local officials. They have their own expertise and they have their own feet on the ground (and in the air). Sometimes, they know more than the officials do; sometimes they know it first.

If anybody really needed a reminder of the power of broadcasting, they got it on Tuesday when a rare earthquake shook things up in the same region that Irene is now threatening. The coverage that stations gave the quake from Richmond, Va., to New York may have been out of proportion to the damage it caused, but it demonstrated for all that the stations are ready to go this weekend.


So, given all this, why is broadcasting getting so little respect in Washington these days? Why is it feeling beleaguered?

As far as I can tell, there is no one at the White House or the Commerce Department or the Department of Homeland Security or the FCC asking what they can do to keep local broadcasting vital and doing what it does so well. And certainly no one is asking what they can do to make local broadcasting even better.

Instead, you’ve got the FCC looking to take away as much TV spectrum as it can and sell it to wireless broadband providers with insufficient regard for how it would affect broadcasters that choose to remain in the band.

Now, as I wrote last week, I believe the FCC could buy off some marginal TV stations and juggle the TV spectrum in a way that would satisfy some of the demands for more wireless spectrum and markedly improve the coverage of the remaining TV stations — an old-fashioned compromise.

Like a lot of other industries, broadcasters would benefit from a more robust and capable wireless broadband network. They have been using it increasingly to gather news and distribute it. They know that during the coming storm the best way to reach many people will be through their battery-powered mobile phones.

But judging from the reaction to last week’s column, it’s way too late for compromise. The broadcasters flat out don’t trust the FCC anymore. They now see nothing but harm to their businesses and services coming from the commission’s spectrum plan.

And the agency is doing nothing to build that trust by continuing to hide its predictive models of what would happen to remaining stations if big gobs of spectrum were taken away. Why should broadcasters go along with anything the FCC proposes without a clear idea of how they are going to be affected?

An even better question is, why should any member of Congress give the FCC the authority it needs to implement its spectrum plan without a clear idea of how stations are going to be affected?

Over the years, broadcasters have built up a tremendous infrastructure and brought together many talented people that are expert at communicating. This weekend, in Wilmington, Norfolk, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Providence and Boston, this extraordinary capability will be focused on  Hurricane Irene and making sure that its human impact is as small as possible. You can count on it.

That’s worth everybody’s respect, and that’s worth protecting.

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It’s not just TV stations that deserve respect from policymakers in Washington. So do radio stations. To make that case, I offer this story from Kim McAvoy, our Washington correspondent:

When the 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit central Virginia Tuesday afternoon, radio was the only link my son had to the outside world.

James and his classmates were evacuated from his Fauquier County, Va., high school, and kept outside for roughly 35 minutes. And while all the students figured an earthquake had struck, school officials wouldn’t confirm what happened. And since cell phone service was disrupted, there was no way kids could call parents or friends to get some answers.

In fact, there was some speculation that the massive shaking everyone felt was caused by a nuclear explosion in Washington, which is roughly 45 miles from the school.

So my son decided he was going to find out what happened.

Like most teenagers, James never goes anywhere without his MP3 player, which also happens to have an FM tuner. He tuned in Hubbard’s all-news WTOP-FM and immediately learned that an earthquake was, indeed, the culprit and that there didn’t appear to be major damage or serious injuries.

James was able to fill in his classmates with minute-by-minute updates about the quake and its impact on the region.

Clearly, it was an unnerving experience for my son and his fellow students. But I think James summed it up best when he said that being able to “know what was really going on definitely helped cool things down.”


Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be reached at 973-701-1067 or mailto:[email protected]. You can read his other columns here.

Comments (7)

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Ellen Samrock says:

August 26, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Excellent column, Harry. I especially liked this point: “If one station gets knocked out, two or three others will be there with much the same information.” But that might not be the case if stations get taken away by government policy. What if two or more TV stations have to share the same tower and transmitter and that site gets damaged or destroyed? You’ve just lost two or more stations. You hope and pray that there are other stations that can supply information beyond basic EAS requirements–stations that haven’t already sold out or been forced out . Wireless providers claim they need more spectrum to provide adequate emergency communications but what is often more likely the case is the need for more infrastructure, not spectrum. All the spectrum in the world isn’t going to help if a few key cell tower sites are knocked out in a disaster. I have never seen an industry that is regulated by a government agency which hates it. But this is definitely the current situation with the FCC and its relationship with broadcasting.

Chisaki Watanabe says:

August 26, 2011 at 7:56 pm

You are on target Harry with a big time bulls eye! Several years ago, working within the structure of the FCC created Media Security and Reliability Council, the group spent many hours studying and recommending procedures and recommendations on disaster preparation by local broadcasters. When this incident ends over the weekend – the record will show that local TV and radio were the “first informers” in a mannner that was most dependable, accurate and presented in a steady and informative way for the good of their respective communities.

Hope Yen and Charles Babington says:

August 26, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Thanks Harry, another wonderfully insightful picture of the way things really ARE with TV and radio, brought to sharp focus when the stuff over which all of us, yes, even Washington, have NO control, starts to hit the fan!

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

August 27, 2011 at 2:08 am

Harry, I agree with all you said but frankly I don’t think you’ve gone far enough. If the FCC gets it’s way, what exactly do they imagine is the mechanism or news service that will effectively inform citizens via broadband in the event of an emergency. An important reason that broadcasters are reliable stewards of the airwaves is because broadcast licenses have always come with public service requirements. The FCC fantasizes that responsible and well-funded news services will magically spring up in response to market forces. Sure they will. And they’ll all be competing for the latest tidbits about Lady Gaga, Snooki, and Charlie Sheen. Without a long-term strategy to require or at least incentivize true public service, the FCC’s proposed spectrum auctions are likely to undermine the public’s need to know.

Hans Schoonover says:

August 27, 2011 at 11:12 am

Leadership is missing: … Does the internet, on balance, strengthen or weaken the Broadcast system? … Taking either the broadest or narrowest view, it is clear that there is NOT much for broadcasters to celebrate about “internet-based TV” systems. The internet companies are large and are our competitors. >>> Your viewers think now is the changing-of-the-guard and it’s about time… “After all, when the power goes off, you will still have your smart phone and laptop”

Tony Alexander says:

August 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Harry, I knew that Irene would get you pumped up on this topic, but, in my mind, when you do this you are really helping the “other” side. Yes, it’s true that several broadcasters did outstanding (some say overdone) coverage of Irene, BUT NOT all stations in every market provided such wall to wall coverage. The point being is that we can live with two or three or maybe even four stations in a TV market, but we don’t need 15 stations all doing the same thing. It’s overkill and it’s a waste of spectrum and other valuable resources. The viewers in Washington, DC or New York City would be no worse off if there had been only three stations or four stations in the market and all of them would have been providing Irene coverage. Perhaps those stations would have done an even better job if there were only three or four stations total.

    Hans Schoonover says:

    August 29, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Why not 15 major companies (Goggle TV, Apple TV & Facebook TV, Microsoft TV, telecoms, IPTV Companies etc.) distributing on any device “all over”? Letting the “Internet search algorithms” decide if your opinion or emergency will get up there on page “one” is what the spectrum will become and giving to by the FCC. (Money talks in Washington DC). …. Sorry local TV Station owners, only complete integration into local social internet media will help you. To “Win in DC”, it is the balance between “back by popular demand” votes versus much larger non-TV companies $’s… These companies have long harbored ambitions to extend its online advertising business to the television arena, where the lion’s share of global ad budgets is spent…. It’s time to buckle down to turn Internet dollars to an OTA advantage…. “Take back internet market share, stay in the game”, your local TV Station sales person must have an internet and OTA ad package to sell… YES, Harry, it is still all about money? Please, just “Keep On Trying”, to tell us about “True rich beyond Measure” stories!!! Maybe, it is the main reason for 15 stations in one community, so every story can be told.. >>> Rich 818 516 0544

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