Broadcasting fulfills its promise, delivering entertainment (like RGIII and Downton Abbey) and vital information (like storm warnings) to the public — free of charge, if people want it that way. Yet, the current FCC ignores broadcasting's contributions and pushes broadband policies that undermine the medium. "Listen to the FCC and you'd think broadcast television is simply dead-weight economic loss."
Why Doesn’t The FCC Love Broadcast TV?
Remember that famous comment by Mrs. John L. Lewis, wife of the longtime United Mineworkers Union President? Asked by a reporter in the 1940s what it was like living with the country’s most powerful labor leader, she famously replied, “All he talks is shop, and union shop at that.”
Well, that’s sure reminiscent of today’s Federal Communications Commission, isn’t it? All they talk is broadband, and high-speed interactive links — Xbox 360-sufficient broadband at that. From their comments, you’d think 315 million Americans are just as entranced with this computer technology as they are, wouldn’t you?
But Earth to FCC! Broadcast television is still out there, alive and well, and actually having a big impact on the American people. Really.
So just look at what happened last week — and, which doesn’t seem to have registered with the FCC’s political leadership. First, there was the NFL playoff game between the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks, wasn’t there? As Redskins analyst Trevor Matich has said, this has been the best Redskins team in 10 years. And, the star player has been 22-year-old Robert Griffin III, of course.
Well, remember all the stories about what happened in the United States in the Thirties during the Amos ‘n Andy radio broadcasts? We always remember the report that water usage soared unbelievably during the commercial breaks, as listeners headed for the conveniences. But wasn’t there something of afternoon of the big game in our very own Seat of Government?
Roads and highways were empty. There was nobody walking around, not even walking a pet. We haven’t seen any reports regarding wireless or wireline calling volumes — or, water usage, for that matter. But pretty clearly this football game — and Fox Broadcasting — overwhelmingly dominated the Nation’s Capital for more than three hours. The FCC leadership may have been refreshing their Facebook pages, or checking their email. But everyone else was watching RGIII and football.
The following days, moreover, a prime focus of discussion and debate was this NFL game. Whether RGIII should have kept playing, whether he had severe ligament damage, and so forth. Broadcast television and the Redskins, in other words, overwhelmingly captured the public policy discussion for days. No talk about extending broadband to South Succotash, sorry.
Second, public television grabbed much of the national attention that same Sunday night. Yes, that’s right, public television.
The third season of Britain’s Downton Abbey debuted. According to the ratings folks, this two-hour show attracted some 7.9 million viewers — an amazing audience for public television these days. (Heck, they haven’t done this well since the 1990s, when every elementary student in the country was told they had to watch those National Geographic specials on PBS, right? What was it? The Human Body?)
So have you ever heard anyone at the FCC say anything about public TV? It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? Here’s this enterprise with about $3 billion in Federal, state, local, and university investment. It’s the only broadcast service which is always “kid-safe,” as WETA Washington’s Sharon Rockefeller has noted. It’s universal. But the FCC leadership seems about as interested in public television as they do Old Church Slavonic liturgy, right?
Broadband, again: That’s all they want to hear, thanks very much. Even when public television pulls off a stupendous audience grab like this.
Now, in Fairness, Fox Broadcasting’s telecast of RGIII injuring his knee again, and PBS taking the ratings lead, isn’t all that surprising. The audiences, that is. We still have American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, and The Voice, after all. Have you ever seen the audience numbers for these shows? Or, more important, has anyone at the FCC?
Listen to the FCC and you’d think broadcast television is simply dead-weight economic loss — about as valuable as those jewel bearing factories the U.S. government used to run. In the Derecho Report that’s reportedly being circulated, the FCC staff grudgingly acknowledged that broadcasting helped inform the public during that natural disaster. But the reality remains that American Idol, for instance, out-draws everything on the Internet — and, maybe even cable TV — combined.
It’s not simply ephemeral entertainment-type things, either. Every time there’s a disaster, it turns out the first place nearly everyone goes is their local TV station. They don’t log in to Google News. They don’t rush to Twitter. Sorry. Instead, they switch on their TV.
And, remember, all this highly valued public information is being disseminated to the public at no direct cost. As the late Chip Shooshan would regularly remind people, broadcasting remains just about the only enterprise in the world where it costs today the same as it did when it started — that is, you could and can get it for free.
So does it really matter if the FCC leadership focuses so heavily on gaming and YouTube, and doesn’t mention commercial or public TV? Well, it probably does.
Investors, potential vendors, advertisers, even the public are conscious of what Washington thinks of any enterprise. When they see the regulatory agency persistently dissing broadcasting — and, concentrating on “incentive auctions” to put them out of business — what message do you think that sends?
There also are broadcast innovations being trialed, as many readers will know. Last week, The Telecommunications Review mentioned the mobile DTV trials underway in Seattle and Minneapolis, using Apple customer equipment. You can walk around and watch regular TV. The FCC is against these trials because it wants to sell the relevant channels to Verizon, AT&T, or others. But what if we could come up with a mobile TV service that actually worked?
It’s interesting. Every other country in the world pays a lot of attention to over-the-air television. Japan, Singapore, Russia, Germany — these and other countries are building these tremendous towers, for example. Here, however, our regulators are trying to shut-it down. But what if it turns out mobile digital DTV is really quite feasible? Just imagine the potential demand for that here, and abroad.
Broadcast television, in conclusion, remains a critical part of the U.S. communications system. More people watched Downton Abbey last Sunday evening than have ever heard of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, much less “incentive auctions” and plans to shutter this industry. For 7.9 million Americans, broadcast public television was doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing — keeping them and their family entertained, with minimal time and money investment.
So next time you hear an FCC personage wax eloquent about the redeeming virtues of high-speed Internet connections, just remember what matters the most to American taxpayers and voters. And, sorry Charlie. It isn’t “universal broadband,” the last time we checked. It’s our old friend, TV.
Kenneth Robinson is a Washington communications lawyer and one-time senior legal adviser to former FCC Chairman Alfred Sikes. He is also the writer and publisher of The Telecommunications Review. This column first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of the the Review.