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FCC and NAB broken hearted

NAB Honcho Complains about FCC Neglect, Competition from Broadband

This week the National Association of Broadcasters convention takes over Las Vegas. To kick it off, the lobbying group’s top man, Gordon Smith, took to the stage Monday to set the tone. And the tone was this: Hey, FCC what about us broadcasters?

Leading off Smith’s list of complaints is the FCC’s effort asking TV stations to auction off some spectrum to be reallocated to wireless. But he also complained about the Commission’s favoring of broadband technology in general.

He asked, rhetorically, “Why is there no focus to foster innovation and investment in broadcasting to ensure our business continues to be a world leader alongside our broadband industries? Where is the FCC’s gusto and determination to embrace broadcasting’s values and public service responsibilities?”

He called for a “national broadcast plan” that might “figure out how broadcasting can continue to be a competitive force in this country and continue to serve the public interest.”

In his speech Smith touted the value of broadcaster’s local service, especially in times of emergency. In principle, I agree with Smith on this point. It’s why we so often point out how when radio provides needed information during natural disaster, when power goes out and cell towers are off.

But I would counter that too many broadcasters, especially radio’s biggest groups, haven’t made good on their part of the public service bargain. Over the last 17 years hoarding stations, firing talent and staff, getting rid of local hosts and local programmers, and gutting news departments, all in the name of short-term profits, has hollowed out the public service offered by the vast majority of commercial stations.

Commercial radio’s abandonment of their listeners and real local service helped drive audiences to internet alternatives, not the FCC. Blaming the Commission is like an aging greasy spoon blaming the zoning board for allowing a nice, new fast casual restaurant to open down the street. Maybe if commercial radio offered a better product internet radio wouldn’t be such a threat.

But it’s the very fact that Smith sees broadband and wireless services as competition that indicates the very root of the broadcast industry’s problematic delusion. He accuses the FCC of regulating broadcast like it’s the 1970s. But it sounds like Gordon Smith wants to turn back the clock to 1999 rather than encourage broadcasters to double-down and provide the kind of programming and service that is so good that audiences don’t care whether it’s broadcast or not.

Broadband internet is a fact of life. Moreover, broadband is an opportunity, not competition, and not a threat. It is a platform that broadcasters can use to expand audiences, enhance local service and, commensurately, grow profits. Noncommercial and public radio has already been demonstrating this since the early 2000s. Though some commercial radio groups have started to grow investment in this decade, the industry as a whole is still some ten years late to the party.

I find it all the more ironic that in this same speech Smith complained about the FCC’s recent decision to improve enforcement of ownership rules, curtailing some TV joint sales agreements that amount to end-runs around local ownership limits. While Smith seems to be asking for the FCC’s help for improving broadcast’s future, it seems like the only actual help the NAB wants is even looser ownership regs to drive more consolidation, the very same force that contributed to the industry’s problems today.

Having watched the NAB, the broadcast industry as a whole and the FCC for the last 20 years, I shouldn’t be surprised at Smith’s take. Nothing about it deviates from the company line. That doesn’t make it any less myopic and provincial.

I hope we’ll hear some more news of broadcast innovation, and less retrograde whining, from NAB the rest of the week.

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