Editorial: Being There

Broadcasters heard some encouraging words from both sides of the
aisle last week. At the NAB State Leadership Conference in Washington,
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) both
said they appreciated the value of free, over-the-air broadcasting.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Democrat Udall
who was nothing short of effusive in his praise
of the medium, raising an issue that needs to get
more traction as the pull of wireless broadband
for spectrum grows.

It’s surprising because Democrats have been
more focused on extolling the wonders of broadband
while encouraging broadcasters to move over
and make way for the mobile wireless juggernaut.

But the “somewhat” caveat comes because Udall
is the cousin of Gordon Smith, National Association
of Broadcasters president and former senator,
who hailed from the other side of the aisle.
Smith gave Udall a hug before his speech, and
likely wanted to give him a bigger one afterwards.

Udall said he, too, was focused on broadband
and would make getting it to rural areas—like in
New Mexico—a priority. But he also said he did
not underestimate the value of free, over-the-air
TV, though he did suggest that he and others take
the value for granted.

The senator also pointed out that many Americans
are getting used to paying, and paying “top
dollar,” for cable and cell phone service, while
adding that, “not everyone can afford cable or
satellite TV.” He did not mention, but could have,
that making sure those millions of people (which
include minorities and lower-income viewers in
urban and rural areas) get such services was why
the Democratic-led Congress spent more than a
billion dollars on converter boxes. He also left out
that the current president delayed the DTV transition
to make sure over-the-air viewers were “held
harmless,” as it were.

Not everyone has access to the Internet, the
Senator said: “While it seems like smartphones
and iPads are getting most of the attention lately,
I think that may be due to the fact that we just
take free, over-the-air broadcasting for granted.”
He reminded his audience, as if they needed to
hear it, that broadcasting was the first wireless
technology (cue the applause). He said it was
easier to take it for granted because “broadcasting
seems to have always been there for us. I am
a firm believer that there is a lot of value in being
there,” he said, particularly in times of emergency.
While Udall is excited about the possibilities of
the Internet alerting the public in emergencies,
not everyone has a computer, he stated—current
estimates put the number at 75%-80% of households.
Meanwhile, about 99% of households own
TVs and radios.

The senator was also speaking broadcasters’
language when he said that broadcasting is important
to business and job growth, adding, “We
should remember that in this time of delicate
economic recovery.” The Television Bureau of
Advertising may want to bronze this Udall quote:
“Advertisers and especially local businesses value
their local broadcasters as an efficient way to
reach their community and customers.”

Udall said that importance to advertisers, combined
with higher-quality new hi-def signals,
made it easier for him to see the value of the service
and “to expect broadcasting will continue to
play an important role in our lives and future,”
and again cautioned that “we should not take that
for granted.”

There is no danger of that happening with
broadcasters, who instead are continuing to feel
underappreciated and under the gun.

Yes, we know, Udall was speaking to a roomful
of broadcasters, the power of whose political
advertising time he also invoked at one point, and
whose hands it would be impolitic to bite. But the
speech would have been an opportunity to take
them, gently, to the woodshed or tell them things
they needed to hear but didn’t had he wanted to.
Udall instead praised the industry publicly and
profusely, so we will take him at his word and
hold him to it. It helps, of course, that the observations
had the added advantage of being true.

P.S.: Udall was also right on target with his defense
of public broadcasting funding last week. To
phase out CPB funding entirely strikes us as draconian,
and hardly justifiable when millions in NASCAR
sponsorship money survived as a recruiting
tool for the military. The funding phase-out strikes
us as the same old political attacks under the
broader cover of other, necessary budget-cutting.