Broadcasters meet at NAB in Las Vegas this week with a lot on their minds and plates. They could be forgiven for feeling a little like Ginger Rogers, who had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels. They are being stretched to the limit by having to operate in a tanking economy while at the same time reconstituting their transmission systems for digital; they also have to figure out where their audiences are going and how to keep pace.
The majority of stations have yet to pull the plug on analog, so they are in major transition mode. This includes having to coordinate, staff and promote DTV walk-in call centers in most of the nation's major markets, not to mention trying to coax a few more weeks out of aging equipment.
That comes as their business model continues to be reshaped by technological change, and their viewers wooed to other platforms as never before. NAB will be much about mobile this week, which may be a necessity rather than simply a nod to the newest platform.
If that were not enough—and it is—the economy continues to take a sledgehammer to broadcasters' advertising base, necessitating hard choices. Stories of continuing layoffs and news cutbacks do nothing to brighten that picture.
Did some broadcasters take on too much debt to get what they want? Yes. So did much of the rest of the country. But that is old news. The theme now should be stimulus, recovery and aid.
What can the government do? For one thing, it could take a smidge of that stimulus money and give aid to the commercial broadcasters most in need of funding to help front the continuing costs of analog after the NTIA—and Congress—failed to fix the converter-box-coupon accounting issue in time to avoid moving the date.
Broadcasters won't ask for money, just as they didn't aggressively oppose the date move, because it would be politically unwise. We are under no such constraints.
Also, the FCC needs to do everything possible to make sure unlicensed devices that will operate in the TV spectrum band do not cause interference, and then hope that is enough.
More broadly, the FCC and Congress should first do no harm. That means it is no time to micromanage broadcasters' business in the name of localism. Beyond that, the FCC should reconsider its newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership decision and remove the ban rather than simply nibble around the edges.
For their part, networks and stations must work together to build a common future, one that rests on innovative programming, effective delivery systems and the kind of local service that is the medium's once and future greatness.