TV Gets No Respect in a Broadband World

LAS VEGAS ( TheStreet) -- Fighting Gordon Smith of Oregon may not be the heir apparent to Bob LaFollette of Wisconsin, but he evoked the words "freedom" and "democracy" enough in his speech to open the TV broadcast industry's annual gathering that onlookers might assume a larger mantle than a for-profit industry that uses the public's free airwaves to sell advertising.

But Smith used the occasion of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) giant convention to lash out at a wireless industry that he says covets television's spectrum while failing to serve the public interest. The Federal Communications Commission, Smith said, has for more than 10 years put its energies into helping the broadband industry grow while doing "what it can to encourage TV stations to go out of business."

"We are here to be the megaphones for freedom and democracy," said Smith, the former Oregon senator who took the top job at the National Association of Broadcasters in 2009 after serving on the Senate's Commerce Committee, the panel that oversees broadcast-related legislation. "We are always here for our communities, anywhere they are, and always for free. The wireless industry covets our spectrum, because they chew through their massive allocation of spectrum, attempting to deliver the video we deliver far more efficiently."

The FCC recently delayed plans for TV broadcasters to auction their spectrum to wireless carriers who covet the low-frequency airwaves, to better transmit higher-revenue generating video content. The TV station operators would either end their operations or seek an alternative channel. The auction would also be used to raise funds for a public safety communications network to be called FirstNet.

The NAB Show held in Las Vegas is one part shopping mall for technology companies and content providers eager to sell their wares. But for Smith it is golden opportunity to spread the gospel of TV broadcasters, the folks who cover natural disasters and schools and mayoral elections, and would like to get some credit for doing it.

Echoing Smith's credo, Univision Communications Chairman Haim Saban called the FCC, the "Friendly Cable Commission," leaving no doubt about the source of the billionaire's ire. Univision, the largest U.S.-Spanish language broadcaster, became the country's most popular network last year, surpassing CBS ( CBS).

In a defeat for the NAB, the FCC earlier this month ruled that a broadcaster that controls two televisions in the same market cannot share advertising departments. The FCC, under Chairman Tom Wheeler, ruled last month that such arrangements violate laws on ownership concentration. The issue of concentration has been a touchy one for broadcasters who assert that online content providers aren't forced to operate under similar restrictions.

Wheeler's FCC has argued that television broadcasters have actually impeded the development of a vibrant and competitive local media market as large television stations owners led by Sinclair Broadcast Group ( SBGI), Nexstar Broadcasting Group ( NXST), Gannett ( GCI), Tribune ( TRBAA) and others have skirted ownership concentration laws aimed at fomenting a wider assortment of local news providers.

But Smith sought to portray local broadcasters as the guardians of "public interest mandates of diversity and localism. Asking rhetorically whether cable and wireless companies will carry out such mandates, carry children's programming, political events or observe "decency standards" of local communities, Smith said "not a chance."

Rather, the NAB head called for the FCC to embark on the construction of a National Broadcast Plan, a guidepost for the industry's evolution, similar to the commissions's National Broadband Plan, for which "the government invested many millions of dollars" and a year of its time and effort. He said it's high time that the FCC remove barriers preventing FM radio receiver chips in mobile telephones. Transmitting video content over broadcast airwaves, he said, is far more efficient than wireless. 

Not enough, Smith said, is being done to safeguard low-income and rural communities who mostly rely on broadcast TV and radio. "If the Commission is really serious about competition, it will study how broadcasting can be a competitive check on the cable and wireless industry," Smith said.

FCC Chairman Wheeler is scheduled to address the NAB on Tuesday.

--Leon Lazaroff is TheStreet's deputy managing editor.

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