Editorial: Being There

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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.

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