COMMENTARY BY KENNETH ROBINSON

Why Doesn’t The FCC Love Broadcast TV?

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."

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.

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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.


Comments (9)

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r small says:

January 14, 2013 at 11:35 am

What he said.

ABELARDO BLANCO says:

January 14, 2013 at 11:44 am

Very well said. The FCC is in the pocket of the broadband industry. Follow the money.

Ellen Samrock says:

January 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Disappointing article. I was actually hoping the author would answer the question. Understandably, it’s difficult being regulated by an agency that hates the industry it regulates. But the FCC merely reflects the attitudes of its chairman and the administration it serves under. So the question should really be posed to Genachowski and Obama.

Tim Pardis says:

January 14, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Why is the country no longer listening to AM radio as they were during the mid 1930’s? Because that technology was supplanted by other technologies like television and FM radio. Time and technology move on.

I have been a broadcaster all my life but our over-the-air technology, so dominant during the 20th century, is now being supplanted by IT based technologies: both wired and wireless. I observe that my three adult children spend far more time on their iPhones than they do watching television. This trend will only accelerate thereby requiring more and more bandwidth to service the needs (and wants) of the public. And, as we all know, there is only so much RF spectrum available for all users.

Then, let’s look at the two shows cited by the author over this past weekend. How many of the viewers watching these programs had them delivered by OTH means. With over 80% of the population receiving their television signals via hard wired/optical means, I suspect less than 25% of the audience for these programs was watching via OTH technology. I had a conversation with one of the DC stations DoE last year about his transmission system and maintenance thereof. During that conversation he mentioned that he wasn’t worried when the transmitter went off the air because the majority of his audience watched via one of the three MSOs that service the metro area. So, is it efficient to maintain all those 6 MHz channels when that spectrum could be better utilized by a newer technology that are in demand by a large segment of the public? That is the question.

Don’t get me wrong, OTH television has a ongoing, valid role to play in our day-to-day lives…especially during times of emergency (e.g. – Sandy) when the point-to-point infrastructure is heavily impaired. However, maintaining the vast amount of spectrum for OTH television in the face of lessening OTH viewership and increasing mobile data needs is unrealistic. It is not that the FCC doesn’t like Broadcast TV, it is the fact that technology is changing and they are trying to mitigate the change.

    Matthew Castonguay says:

    January 14, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    A TV DoE said he doesn’t care if his transmitter goes down? I doubt that very much, for many reasons. If true, that person would almost certainly be fired if they said it front of their GM. It tends to be the underprivileged who are relying on those signals, as well as the fact that while a household may have cable, not all sets in the house are always connected, so the actual consumption of OTA is substantially higher than your #s suggest (and likely to go higher as more broadcast + OTT combo solutions help consumers save $). I also don’t get your spectrum efficiency argument…in your view, it is MORE efficient to deliver 1,000,000 or more individual/separate football game streams than to broadcast it? And finally, good that you acknowledge emergencies such as Sandy, where broadcasters stayed on the air while wireless nets crashed, and all kinds of misinformation was circulating on Twitter.

    Tim Pardis says:

    January 14, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    (1) The DoE said he was not worried. He did not say that he did not care. (2) Efficiency has nothing to do with this discussion anymore than it does to individuals using cars vs. mass transportation (evident during any weekday rush hour in DC). The public WANTS their individual programs when they want them: not when the broadcasters want to deliver them. (3) I notice the overnight ratings in the right hand column. A 14.1 for all six OTA networks? I remember twenty years ago that would be north of 70 for the (then) four networks. Do you call that efficient use of spectrum? (4) Change is not something humans deal with well. Especially when it effects our industry/livelihood. But change is one of the only constants in this life. With more and more spectrum hungry data devices.(smart phones & tablets) coming on line in increasing numbers, something has got to give. I can assure you that with the millennial generation coming of age, they want their smart wireless, data devices much more than OTA television.

    Ellen Samrock says:

    January 14, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    “Something has got to give?” Something has already given, namely, television broadcasting to the tune of 192 MHz. This is the amount of spectrum that has already been reclaimed from TV. So far, much of it has been either wasted or warehoused. And now the government and telcos are back for more like addicts with an insatiable habit. This time it’s going to hurt–not just broadcast television but everyone who uses wireless mics and unlicensed WiFi. It’s time for the telcos to give by making more efficient use of the spectrum they’re already holding, including the warehoused spectrum.

    Brian Walshe says:

    January 14, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Before broadcast spectrum is reallocated to other uses, the nation is owed a better accounting of how those that want the space have used the space already allocated to them. How much vacant space the wired/wireless folks have been assigned or bought at auction is lying fallow? Require them to put that to use first or lose it. Then see what else is available before taking spectrum away from broadcasters or any other currently licensed users or user types.

    RE: The value of OTA broadcasting…

    I’m 58 today, and my eyes and ears do perceive the differences between not compressed, compressed and very compressed pictures and sound… as produced by lower resolution and sampling rate.

    That’s one big reason I prefer watching OTA when possible. The picture quality is better. I don’t have to pay extra for HD, and recently I’ve noticed HD popping up on some small market station’s .2 channels, which is a win for viewers, particularly in our economically distressed area. We do subscribe to DirecTV, which carries the Scripps home and food based channels my wife prefers… but don’t watch a whole lot aside from that.

    Considering that there aren’t just three (or four if you count DuMont) networks anymore, Broadcast networks still regularly attract a huge number of eyeballs–via OTA and other technologies that accommodate viewers’ time and place of viewing preferences. Local viewers depend on their local stations for a local connection that pay delivery vehicles like cable and satellite can’t provide–without carrying broadcast stations.

    Let’s get OTA on cellphones… and while the FCC is doing something positive, make it possible for the nets now carried on cable/satellite to be available for Broadcasters to carry.

Halie Johnson says:

January 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm

The FCC could make a mint off of our frequencies if they could auction them off. That’s why they’re trying to get the “white space” and incentive auctions going. They forced us to digital to save bandwidth, moved frequencies and eliminated upper channels to free up more space so they could auction it off.


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