What’s the Best Use of Broadcast Airwaves?

The following column was published in the July 14, 2011 edition of Missouri News Horizon.

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As the debate rages in Washington, DC over auctioning free and local broadcast television airwaves for fee-based wireless broadband applications, one of the questions being pondered is, “What’s the highest and best use of this valuable resource?”

The answer is: “It depends whom you ask.”

If you queried the citizens of Alabama, many would respond: “For emergency weather warnings, because it was local TV weather forecasters who saved our lives.”

Ask those who rely exclusively on broadcasting as their only source for television, and they might answer: “For free TV, because it is the best bargain anywhere. I watch news, public affairs programming and the best, most popular entertainment, and it doesn’t cost me a dime.”
Those in the growing pay-TV “cord-cutting” movement might say: “To supplement my online TV viewing with live sports and free TV, and to end an unpleasant relationship with my subscription-TV provider.”

America’s growing immigrant population — being served by an exploding number of foreign-language channels — might answer: “For news about my culture and heritage, and programming tailored to my family and me.”

Simply put, broadcast television has something for everyone.

Even in pay-TV households, over 90 of the top 100 primetime programs each week are on a broadcast channel.

Interested in sports? Last time I checked, there were apps for that, including the NFL, NCAA football and basketball, and marquee events like the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series, the Masters and the Kentucky Derby — all exclusively on broadcast television.

And when there’s breaking news, an Amber alert child that needs to be rescued, or a weather emergency, Americans tune to local broadcasting for information that can be the difference between life and death.

Those of us in broadcasting are somewhat bemused by the notion that local television is “yesterday’s technology.” Never mind the explosive growth in TV antenna sales, the roaring broadcast advertising market, or that poll after poll shows Americans rely on local television as their No. 1 source for news. Never mind that as a “one-to-everyone” delivery system, broadcasting is far more efficient at delivering video than are the “one-to-one” cell phone and Internet service providers. The “broadcasting is dead” crowd has made up its mind, and, by golly, facts are not going to stand in the way.

What is perhaps most disappointing in this debate is the dismissive treatment of those Americans exclusively reliant on free TV. Nationally, that number grew four million from last year to 46 million viewers – 15% of the television-watching population – and will continue growing as consumers cut the pay-TV cord and reject costly monthly subscriptions.

New research found that about one out of four Asian-American and Spanish-speaking households and 17% of African-American homes rely solely on over-the-air broadcasting. One out of five adults age 18-34 is broadcast-only. Milwaukee, Boise, El Paso and South Bend are just a few of the cities where OTA penetration ranges from 20% to 32%. Are those people not important? Should their TV viewing suffer to accommodate faster app downloads in Manhattan?

Just two years ago, broadcasters transitioned to digital and high-definition, which offers limitless opportunity for local stations to reinvent their business model and better serve viewers. Broadcasters are rolling out mobile DTV to provide on-the-go viewers with access to live and local programming anytime, anywhere on their smartphones, laptops and even the backseats of cars.

To be clear: broadcasters are ready and willing to work with all interested parties in expanding wireless broadband. However, it is important for policymakers to reject shortsighted solutions, and to recognize that local economies are reliant on broadcasters and local advertising as an engine for economic growth. We must recognize that broadband and broadcast are not mutually exclusive, and that both broadcasting and broadband are needed to address the nation’s growing communications needs. The promise of digital television should not be sacrificed on the altar of a national broadband plan seemingly premised on a belief that fee-based national broadband services are more valuable to society than free and local broadcasting.

In the final analysis, the question should be asked: What part of free and local television do broadcasting critics not like?