Defending Your (Spectrum) LifePoint-counterpoint comments from both sides of the battle over digital media’s future 5/23/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
Amidst the continuing controversy, B&C asked two of the primary
players in the battle over media’s digital future to make their respective
cases for the government’s best use of the broadcast spectrum.
In this corner, Sen. Gordon Smith, president of the National Association
of Broadcasters, which is trying to preserve a business model and sufficient spectrum to make broadcasting viable in a world of exploding digital
competition. In the other corner, Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer
Electronics Association, whose members make all those mobile devices
desperately seeking spectrum. Let’s get ready to grumble.
What’s the best use of broadcast spectrum? It depends
whom you ask.
If you queried Alabamans three weeks ago, many
would likely have responded: “For emergency weather
warnings, because it was local TV weather forecasters
who saved our lives.”
Ask the tens of millions of Americans
who can’t afford subscription
TV and they might answer: “For
free TV, because it is the best bargain
anywhere. I watch news, public
affairs programming and the
best, most popular entertainment,
and it doesn’t cost me a dime.”
Those in the growing cord-cutter
movement might say: “To supplement
my over-the-top TV viewing
with live sports and free TV, and
to end an unpleasant relationship
with my pay-TV provider.”
America’s growing immigrant
population—being served by an
exploding number of multicast
channels—might answer: “For
news about my culture and heritage,
and programming tailored to
my family and me.”
Poll a politician and he or she would probably say:
“To reach the masses, and win elections. I may dabble
in cable ads and Internet banners. But if I really want
to break through the clutter, broadcasting is the most
effective media buy.”
You don’t have to be a recovering politician like me to
know broadcast television has something for everyone.
Even in pay households, 90 of the top 100 primetime
programs each week are on a broadcast channel.
Interested in sports? Last time I checked, we had apps
for that, including the NFL, NCAA football and basketball,
and marquee events like the Super Bowl, Final
Four, World Series, the Masters and the Kentucky
Derby—all exclusively on broadcast television.
And when there’s breaking news, an Amber alert child
that needs to be rescued, or a weather emergency, Americans
tune to local broadcasting for information that can
be the difference between life and death.
I get a chuckle from those who suggest broadcasting
is “yesterday’s technology.” Never mind the explosive
growth in TV antenna sales, the roaring broadcast upfront
advertising market, or that poll after poll shows
Americans rely on local television as their No. 1 source
for news. Never mind that as a “one-to-everyone” delivery
system, broadcasting is far more spectrally efficient
than cell phone transmission architecture. The “broadcasting
is dead” crowd has made up its mind, and, by
golly, facts are not going to stand in the way.
What is perhaps most disappointing from the other side
is the dismissive treatment of those Americans exclusively
reliant on free TV. Nationally, that number is more than
14%—or 42 million people—and growing. Thirty percent
of Asian-American homes and Spanish-speaking households
rely solely on over-the-air broadcasting. Milwaukee,
Boise, El Paso and South Bend are just a few of the cities
where OTA penetration ranges from 20% to 32%. Are
those people not important? Should their TV viewing suffer
to accommodate faster app downloads in Manhattan?
DTV offers limitless opportunity for broadcasters and
a chance to reinvent our business model. Mobile DTV
will provide on-the-go viewers with live and local programming
on smartphones, laptops and the backseats of
cars. And coming soon: 3D TV.
To be clear: broadcasters have no qualms with additional
spectrum auctions that are truly voluntary, even though
TV stations relinquished 108 MHz of airwaves just two
years ago. Our concern remains with stations that don’t
volunteer. The vast majority of broadcasters that choose
to stay in business should be allowed to deliver on the
promise of digital television they made to their viewers.
Shortsighted policies should not break that promise.
In the final analysis, I have to ask: What part of free
and local don’t our adversaries like?
The question is, how should a rare public-owned good,
necessary for communication, be allocated so it serves
the best interests of the public? By almost any measure
it should be allocated to the uses that provide the most
information, the greatest choice and the largest return
measured in multiple ways.
Television broadcasters today perform a valuable public
service, but most of that service now occurs through the
must-carry obligation on cable and other video providers.
Each year, the percentage of homes that rely exclusively
on an antenna for video service falls by about a percent; so
today fewer than 8% of American homes rely exclusively
on an over-the-air signal. On the other
hand, wireless broadband deployment
continues to be a national goal, and our
success as a world leader depends on
this growth—growth that thus far has
been exponential. Unfortunately, we
are quickly approaching a brick wall
and these devices will be subject to
bandwidth restrictions rendering them
unusable in many major cities.
Ironically, it is the wireless broadband
industry that has not only helped the
economy grow, but also contributed to
commercial broadcasting success. Last
year, the telecom industry was the second-
largest advertiser, spending nearly
$9 billion. AT&T and Verizon alone
spent nearly $4 billion in advertising.
So the choice will soon be—should
television broadcasters continue to sit
on valuable spectrum to serve a sliver of
the American public? Or should a portion of that spectrum
be redeployed in the interest of the American public?
This does not mean the end of television broadcasting.
In the near to midterm, it may mean fewer broadcasters
in a number of American cities, particularly those
that are financially strained and unlikely to survive longterm.
It also provides the option for stations to share
transmitters so that their unique content remains available
while freeing up spectrum for its best use.
The voluntary incentive auction is an unparalleled
window of economic opportunity for broadcasters. Currently,
the legislative environment seems to be warm and
legislators are willing to compensate the broadcasters
and keep the auctions voluntary.
If broadcasters continue to push back and use fear and
sheer lobbying clout to block congressional action, they
may find, someday soon, that a Congress facing economic
calamity may be less charitable and simply direct the FCC
to stop renewing broadcasters’ eight-year licenses.