The Missing Piece of Chairman Wheeler’s Broadcast Vision

At the annual NAB Show in Las Vegas on Monday, NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith publicly called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a National Broadcast Plan. He suggested that this plan, inspired by the National Broadband Plan, should outline the FCC’s vision for how the government can help drive, or at least not impede, innovation and investment in broadcasting.

Broadcasters have been craving a coherent and holistic FCC vision for their industry for quite some time. Rather than be subject to piecemeal and often contradictory regulations and expectations, broadcasters yearn to understand where the agency sees them as part of the overall telecommunications landscape. Are broadcasters “special” because they are the lone voice of localism and diversity, and therefore will be regulated as such? Or is the FCC going to measure the relative value of the industry on how it competes with the wireless and cable industries, and thus level the playing field by freeing up broadcasters from their shackles of unparalleled regulation?

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler responded in a speech Tuesday to Smith’s call by setting forth his high-level vision for broadcasters. The chairman should be commended for sharing his long-term view of the industry. It’s essential that broadcasters understand how their regulator perceives their role within the overall telecommunications landscape.

The chairman explained that the broadcast industry is at a crossroads, saying, “We are at an inflection point where broadcast licensees can move from being the disrupted, to being the disruptor.”

He is right on the money. Broadcasters have the potential collectively to be a major disruptor. They can provide the increasingly vital competition to the heavily consolidated – and ever consolidating – cable and wireless industries.

The chairman is off target, however, with respect to the manner in which broadcasters can most significantly be disruptive. In his mind, broadcasters should aim to become another Netflix; in other words, they should focus on delivering their content over the Internet. He asked broadcasters to focus on “digital,” meaning they should focus more on their Web properties than broadcasting over their own wireless networks.

I don’t know about you, but a future that gives even more power to the incredibly consolidated and exceedingly powerful cable and wireless industries – one that puts them as our gatekeepers – sounds like a future that ultimately only disrupts broadcasters, and not the overall ecosystem.

In my view, with the right policies and flexibility in place, broadcasters can leverage their exceptional local content and, perhaps most notably, superior transmission system, to truly shake up the wireless and cable grip on the marketplace. Broadcasters even have a terrific opportunity to serve as a driver of the over-the-top industry (as opposed to a mere client), by allowing cord-cutters to receive free broadcast TV while supplementing with over-the-top content.

The chairman’s own words brought our differing visions into stark focus:

“[Broadcasters] possess the two most important components of a successful digital strategy: compelling content – specifically, the most important content: local content – and the means to promote it.”

What is most notable about this passage is what is missing. Most TV broadcasters in attendance assumed that the chairman would note that the two best broadcast assets are local content and a unique and spectrally efficient architecture. The omission of the latter is important because it demonstrates that the chairman does not see, as many broadcasters do, a game-changing value in our one-to-many architecture. At no point did he acknowledge this competitive advantage. The only value of our architecture in his mind was as a wireless sandwich board, advertising how great our over-the-top content is.

It is not lost on many broadcasters that the chairman’s vision happens to fit nicely into two of his three highest priorities: the spectrum incentive auction and the open Internet. First, if broadcasters buy into his vision of them as over-the-top content providers, they don’t really need their spectrum and therefore they should participate in his incentive auction. Second, if broadcasters become over-the-top content providers, they should be concerned about broadband providers slowing down their service or demanding payments for delivery to consumers, and thus should line up in support of the chairman’s controversial drive for robust rules governing the Internet.

To what degree the chairman’s vision is truly comprehensive or instead a clever way of convincing broadcasters to support his legacy items is anyone’s guess. At this point, it’s frankly too hard to judge.

Either way, forward-thinking broadcasters truly understand the value of their transmission system and the value of their spectrum. They also know that spectrum value will only increase. That’s why broadcast companies have spent over $50 billion in buying and selling stations for years. Despite the chairman’s not-so-subtle warning that the incentive auction is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” broadcasters get that their spectrum values will not drop anytime soon.

Indeed, many broadcasters are looking to do far more with their spectrum, whether it is higher quality video (4K and 8K), robust delivery to mobile devices or new IP-based solutions for emerging needs such as machine-to-machine technologies. They are also looking to help address the challenge of delivering wireless video; that pesky issue that causes wireless networks to slow down and even fail altogether. And broadcasters can do this for consumers for free; i.e., video delivery over a broadcaster’s transmission system that won’t eat into expensive wireless data plans.

The chairman’s remarks demonstrate that broadcasters have their work cut out for them. Unlike the chairman, they don’t, and likely never will, view themselves as mere content companies or websites. Obviously their digital properties are a strong compliment to their core businesses. In fact in most markets the most viewed local websites are already broadcast television and radio websites. And local broadcasters continue to find new ways to go over-the-top with their network partners. But the industry also possesses a unique and spectrally efficient delivery system that should not be overlooked. In fact, the FCC can’t overlook it. Our architecture – both radio and television – has to be a key component in addressing our nation’s spectrum needs in the future.

A National Broadcast Plan would look at the ways in which our transmission system could make a meaningful difference in spectrum policy and services to which all Americans have access. A meaningful National Broadcast Plan would not shrink broadcasting into a mere Web service, but grow it into a real competitive force against wireless and cable. If all we do is ride on their backs, we will ultimately always be beholden to them. For a chairman whose watchwords are “competition, competition, competition,” his remarks conspicuously overlooked meaningful intermodal competition in the delivery of video content.

Broadcasters want to be a major part of the future, and not just in the way in which they’ve been an integral part of the past. Broadcasters – both radio and television – want to continue to morph technologically to help address the need for competition, localism and diversity. We cannot do that by surrendering spectrum and putting ourselves and our viewers at the mercy of the wireless and cable industries. We must be a true competitive force, and we need the FCC to have the vision and courage to be a partner in allowing us to do so.