Spectrum and retrans defended by NAB chief Gordon Smith


“Hey…we already gave at the office!” was the response by NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith to attempts by the wireless broadband industry to claim more spectrum now used for television. And he also defended the current retransmission consent legal structure in his annual address to the NAB Show in Las Vegas.

“Less than two years ago, broadcasters gave up more than 25 percent of TV spectrum and spent
$15 billion transitioning from analog to digital television. That was our cost of leaving Howdy Doody analog and moving to high definition and multi-channel digital. We embraced this digital future so that we could offer dazzling HD programs and multicasting; so we could offer consumers more choices and deliver content on different platforms, such as sending video to smartphones, tablets and laptops,” said Smith.

But he noted that now, just two years later, the wireless companies want more, so NAB is in “full battle mode” to prevent any involuntary spectrum grab.

“If a station simply can’t make it and it volunteers to sell its spectrum, that’s fine – as long as it doesn’t harm another station that wants to stay in business and is excited about the future. The problem is that what is voluntary for the former could become involuntary for the latter. 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,” he added.

And he discounted the claims of the wireless industry and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (although he wasn’t mentioned by name) that there is a spectrum shortage crisis.
“The fact is there has been more spectrum allocated to mobile broadband than there is capital to deploy it. What is needed to address the capacity crunch is more investment in towers and infrastructure, and receiver standards that maximize the use of the huge swaths of spectrum that wireless carriers have already been allocated. But apparently they have determined that it is cheaper to buy our TV channels at auction than to build out their networks. Hence, spectrum crisis,” smith scoffed.

“I’m not saying there will not be future demands for spectrum to sate consumers’ want for more reliable wireless service, but before anything is done, we believe a respected third party, like the Government Accounting Office, should conduct a comprehensive inventory of what spectrum is out there and more importantly, how much of it is being used today,” said Smith. The NAB has ridiculed Genachowski’s claim that the FCC has already conducted an inventory.

On another subject dear to the hearts of television broadcasters, Smith used his speech to defend the current law regarding retransmission consent agreements.

“Cable stations get paid for their content, and they should. But shouldn’t broadcasters also be paid when cable and satellite companies use their signals to attract customers? Stations deserve the right to negotiate for compensation of their programming. And we know that the system works, because thousands of agreements have been successfully negotiated over the years, with a success rate of over 99 percent. Only a sliver of the negotiations has led to a disruption of service. Some pay-TV companies, however, want to pay nothing or only a pittance for local stations’ signals – even though local content and network programming offered by broadcasters are the ones viewers watch most,” said of the few times when retrans standoffs have led to channel interruptions.

Americans, he noted watch more programs on free TV than from any other video sources.

“When we say it’s free, we mean it’s free to viewers, not to multi-billion dollar corporations that sell subscriptions on the backs of our content,” the NAB chief noted.

And while the FCC has concluded that it has only limited authority and has steered clear of the retrans disputes, Smith doesn’t expect the MSOs to give up. “This issue will re-surface periodically, and we’ll be ready when it does.”