FCC chairman Tom Wheeler came not to bury broadcasters but to praise them, calling them indispensable for the future as well as the past. In a NAB Show speech that attempted to hit all the right notes, the chairman talked about protecting broadcasting from ISP gatekeepers, praised them as the go-to industry for news and information, and said he wanted to better accommodate broadcaster participation in the incentive auction.
Confirming a report in B&C, that accommodation includes modifying the auction framework to make it easier to share channels.
"To provide even more channel sharing flexibility," he told the crowd. "I just circulated a new set of rules that will allow full power and Class A stations to select channel sharing partners both before and after the conclusion of the auction."
"Parties would also be able to enter into channel sharing agreements for fixed terms. We like channel sharing so much, in fact, that we’re proposing to allow channel sharing between stations regardless of whether they participate in the auction next year or not—although those that decide to channel share outside of the auction context will not be able to collect auction proceeds."
Preston Padden, executive director of the Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition, which petitioned the FCC for those channel sharing changes, was understandably pleased by Wheeler's announcement of the new rules.
“By greatly liberalizing the channel sharing rules Chairman Wheeler, the Commissioners and the FCC Staff demonstrate once again that they are wonderfully responsive to constructive broadcaster input into the auction rules," Padden told B&C.
But that was not the only goody in Wheeler's bag. He also signaled he thought the FCC would be able to increase allowable foreign ownership in broadcast stations above 25%, something broadcasters have said could provide new sources of capital. The chairman even gave "my friend" (and also often vocal critic) minority commissioner Michael O'Rielly credit for backing that initiative. He also cited his just-announced plans to wrap up an AM radio aid package.
While broadcasters will welcome more channel sharing flexibility, NAB and Sinclair still have a pending lawsuit over other issues. Wheeler downplayed that, calling it a "bump in the road" and saying that "we are hopeful that the court will dispose of that suit in a way that will allow both of us to move forward."
Wheeler was clearly pleased with the National Association of Broadcasters increasing focus on members who have a fiduciary responsibility to consider participating in the auction.
"Not surprisingly, broadcaster interest has gathered significant momentum," he said, "In addition to the hundreds of broadcasters of all sizes that have privately expressed interest in the auction, Fox, ION, Tribune, and Univision have publicly expressed their interest in participating. I am pleased that, as part of our outreach, we’ve already talked with broadcasters representing nearly half of the stations eligible for the auction."
Broadcasters and cable operators have been in a pitched battle over retransmission consent, and Wheeler played on that to try and enlist their support for his network neutrality rules.
"The Open Internet order safeguards an increasingly important distribution channel for your most important product – local news and information," he said. "It assures that your use of the Internet will be free from the risk of discrimination or hold up by a gatekeeper. Again, I liken this to the concept behind must carry – updated for the 21st century."
"I know broadcasters have always been concerned about gatekeepers," Wheeler said. "The must carry rules are a manifestation of that concern. It was that kind of sensitivity that has led us to focus on maintaining an open Internet. And now that we have produced an Open Internet Order, I hope that you will see in it something important to maintaining your service to the American public, as well as your ability to expand that capability in a continually evolving network environment."
He suggested broadcasters might want to use their powerful medium to make that point. "I hope this means that you as individual broadcasters, as well as through NAB, can support what we have done and help explain its importance to the principles upon which broadcasting has always been based."
Again and again, Wheeler spoke glowingly of broadcasters and broadcasting, including the following:
"There can be no question; the public interest is served by a healthy broadcasting industry with robust reach. Broadcasting is an important part of our future just as it has been an indispensable part of our past," he said.
"From a historical perspective, over-the-air broadcasting has contributed immeasurably to providing our uniquely diverse society with a sense of community, with a sense of shared experience."
"Local TV and radio broadcasters are still the most important source of breaking news in our cities and neighborhoods. Broadcasters are the first place we turn in times of emergency."
"Broadcasters also play a critical role in local economies, connecting people to businesses and commerce like few other mediums can."
"Broadcast TV delivers our most highly watched programming, and events like the Oscars and Super Bowl still draw huge audiences – providing the moments we come together to discuss at the water cooler and, now, on Twitter."
Wheeler closed with a pitch for the incentive auction, again calling it a voluntary once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"The auction will be successful only if you are informed and have confidence in the rules and the process," he said. "That’s why we’re on the road meeting face-to-face with broadcasters and why we will continue to be available for your questions. We welcome your input and your involvement in the process of crafting the rules and policies. We want an auction that is good for consumers and competition – and that ensures a strong and vibrant broadcast industry."
"Disruptive technologies demand that broadcasters and the FCC re-imagine many policies and practices. If each of us successfully addresses the opportunities inherent in the open Internet and the incentive auction, the end result will be a vibrant over-the-air broadcasting industry well able to fulfill its historic localism mission and a more competitive multichannel programming marketplace working for the benefit of American consumers."