FCC: Repacking Some HeatThe term ‘voluntary’ will be one to watch in spectrum debate 4/18/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
The fault line between broadcasters and the FCC was exposed
last week on the issue of “repacking.” That’s the FCC’s plan to move
broadcasters—less than two years after the repacking of stations in
the DTV transition—to free up contiguous bands for wireless broadband.
It is hard to see from this vantage point how the two sides can
come together on a definition of “voluntary”
spectrum reclamation and auctions with that
elephant in the room.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski made it
clear last week to broadcasters in Las Vegas that
his definition of “voluntary” does not extend
to repacking—he prefers “realigning”—that
the FCC will have to do with broadcasters that
don’t volunteer to give up their spectrum.
Genachowski said that would be an unprecedented
move. He was echoing the comments
of Intel executive and former FCC official Peter
Pitsch at a spectrum hearing in Washington the
same day. “Voluntary can’t mean undermining
the potential effectiveness of an auction by giving
every broadcaster a new and unprecedented
right to keep their exact channel location,” the chairman said. “This would
not only be unprecedented, it would give any one broadcaster veto power
over the success of the auction.” Pitsch told Congress that it’s “critical to
note that the repacking process should not be made voluntary….Making
repacking voluntary would give many broadcasters hold-out power.”
Not that some big-time broadcasters are that anxious to move anyway,
if reaction to Genachowski’s statements was any gauge. Leslie Moonves,
president/CEO of CBS, said thanks but no thanks in a discussion at the
National Association of Broadcasters show. At the same event, Post-Newsweek’s
Alan Frank said Genachowski seemed to be talking past the issue of
over-the-air broadcasting to what the FCC would be doing with spectrum.
NAB President Gordon Smith made it just as clear that repacking is not
his idea of voluntary. “It concerns us that the FCC could forcibly relocate a
broadcaster, crowd channels closer together, reduce their coverage, destroy
innovation for viewers, increase interference, or otherwise degrade their
signal,” Smith said. “This endangers our digital future, and violates President
Obama’s promise to prevent a world of digital haves and have-nots.”
There is not a lot of room to maneuver away from that position,
but Smith didn’t suggest he had any plans to do so. He said NAB is
in “full battle mode.”
Both broadcasters and the FCC have been in
something of a kabuki dance of calculated crosstalk
emphasizing the positives, but with the subtext
the tension between what they are saying
and what appears to be shaping up as the end
game. Broadcasters have been saying they are
willing to work with the FCC and don’t reject
spectrum reclamation out of hand, so long as
they are held harmless, the subtext of which is
no forced moves.
The chairman has consistently billed the spectrum
plan as a “voluntary” win-win for broadcasters.
Genachowski last week met with state
broadcasters to make his pitch. But broadcasters aren’t
convinced, and the line in the sand on repacking,
since it affects the broadcasters who don’t want to sell, doesn’t help.
Added Rep. Greg Walden (R.-Ore.) to those unconvinced: ‘Forced’ and
‘voluntary’ don’t sound compatible,” Walden told B&C last week.
“My concern is that there’s not yet been enough discussion on the
implications and consequences for those who don’t participate in the
auction,” Hearst TV president/CEO David Barrett told B&C at NAB after
Genachowski’s speech. “I don’t think we can engage in the challenges
without seeing the modeling first.”
The problem is the FCC won’t know exactly what it will have to do
until it knows which broadcasters have agreed to participate in the auction.
That sounded like “buying a pig in a poke” to Rep. John Dingell
(D-Mich.) last week. He is clearly not alone. —with Michael Malone