Spectrum Sophistry

Thank you, Jeffrey Eisenach.

Thank you for driving a stake deep in the heart of one of the Beltway’s biggest whoppers – namely, that broadcasters are the boondoggle beneficiaries of “free spectrum.”

For my 31 years living in “This Town,” it’s been presented as gospel that TV stations “got the airwaves for nothing.” It started as “the $60 billion giveaway,” morphed into $80 billion, and if memory serves me correct, eventually became a “$600 billion giveaway”. (Do I hear $600 trillion gazillion, anyone?)

“The Largest Corporate Welfare Program in History” read one headline. “The Best Bargain Since Manhattan” screamed another.

Which brings me to the aforementioned Jeffrey Eisenach. A few months back, this well-respected economist was asked to review the validity of claims of a “TV spectrum giveaway”.

After an intensive review of FCC filings, the compilation of data from media research firms and an analysis of communications law and history, here’s what Eisenach found:

Ninety-two percent of all existing full-power television broadcasters PAID MARKET RATES for spectrum licenses on the secondary market. Today, fewer than one in ten full power TV licenses is held by an original licensee, and collectively, broadcasters have shelled out $50 billion dollars for their TV licenses (which, coincidentally, just happens to be just about exactly the amount of money that the FCC has raised in spectrum auctions).

Translation: Suggestions of broadcasters being the recipients of a “billion dollar giveaway” are – in a word – bogus.

But wait, this gets better. Eisenach also exposed the hypocrisy of those who bemoan the government’s “broadcast spectrum giveaway.”

As Eisenach makes clear – long before the FCC’s first spectrum auction — wireless carriers and satellite TV providers DISH and DIRECTV were the recipients of FREE spectrum themselves. Those “free” airwaves remain in the hands of the original licensees or the companies that gobbled them up.

Moreover, these wireless and satellite TV providers who continue to operate on government-granted free spectrum have NONE of the public interest obligations of local TV stations. They have NO program decency standards, NO ownership limits, NO online political advertising requirements, and NO children’s educational programming regulations.

Yet, is anyone calling out cellular companies for receiving spectrum “for free”? Is anyone objecting to DISH and DIRECTV’s bonanza of “free spectrum”? I didn’t think so.

And let’s not forget: None of broadcasting’s competitors embrace the localism mandate that broadcasters embrace. None of them have the network redundancy that is built into broadcasting which allows us to remain “always on” in times of crisis. Cellphone and broadband networks were rendered inoperable by events like Hurricane Sandy in New York, killer tornadoes in Oklahoma City, Tuscaloosa, and Joplin, Mo. and by the derecho in Washington, DC. When it mattered most, broadcasting was the indispensable medium because of its “one-to-everyone” architecture.

Harping on the false claim that broadcasters received spectrum “for free” ignores the tremendous investment local stations have made to utilize airwaves for its highest and best use. It also ignores the $15 billion broadcasters spent on the DTV transition, with no guarantee that a dime of that would be recouped.

Every day, local television stations and our network partners invest in quality news, weather, sports and entertainment that remains the most-watched programming on TV. More than 90 of the 100 top programs every week are on broadcast TV, and are available free of charge to anyone who installs a $50 antenna. Broadcast TV is growing because of the cord-cutting phenomenon, and today there are 59.7 million people who rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcast television.

There will always be distortions and half-truths served up by those who would love to eliminate free and local broadcasting as a competitive, innovative force in communications. Thanks to Jeffrey Eisenach, we can finally put to rest the phony claim of a “broadcast spectrum giveaway.”