You Want Breaking News Coverage? Then Mind the Gap

When was the last time you turned to TV to follow details of breaking news as it unfolded – the real, on-the-ground coverage from reporters in the field? In the first half of this year alone, we learned firsthand about the civil unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, followed with bated breath the manhunt throughout local communities in upstate New York for two convicted murders who had escaped from prison, watched crowds of Americans gather on the South Carolina State House grounds to see a flag come down and heard from those rallying on the Supreme Court steps from local TV reporters at the scene.

If you care about live, on-the-ground coverage of events that are shaping our world – then you care about something called the duplex gap.

Last year, the FCC announced it would no longer reserve two channels in each market within the TV band for critical wireless microphone use, which is essential for broadcaster coverage of breaking news and emergencies. Instead, the FCC decided to set aside space for wireless microphones in the duplex gap, a vacant lot of spectrum located within the wireless band. Wireless mics’ new home in the duplex gap was by no means a perfect solution, but it was all the FCC said it could manage, and broadcasters have done their best over the past year to start figuring out exactly how to make these new digs work.

But just as mics were getting ready to settle into their new home, the FCC just last month said there was one more catch: this real estate would not be available everywhere, as the FCC will place TV stations themselves in the duplex gap in certain markets after the spectrum auction. When a TV station sets up shop in the gap, no other service can use it, including the mics used by reporters rushing to cover tragedy, weather emergencies and other critical events on the ground.

This was quite a change from the FCC’s initial promise, so many parties, including FCC commissioners, asked Commission staff to explain why this about-face was necessary. In producing its information, the staff revealed that it had only done an analysis of one possible scenario for each of three spectrum recovery targets, but staff argued that data showed that in certain markets the FCC needed to put stations in the duplex gap. Chairman Wheeler has said that the number of affected markets would be no more than six. This proposed change is very bad news for newsgatherers who rely on wireless mics to report the news, for viewers who depend upon local and national reporters to get in the middle of a story and public safety officials, who work hand-in-hand with local broadcasters to keep the public and first responders safe.

But the FCC staff is insistent on undoing the original compromise and broadcasters are now in a pickle. We support the auction and want to see it succeed. But we also know we need wireless microphone technology to ably cover the news and keep our communities safe.

So yesterday NAB proposed a new compromise (or “recompromise”) – one that is far from ideal for us – but one that at least holds the Commission to its (new) word, and asks that no more than one station in each of six markets (if necessary) are put in the duplex gap to avoid widespread elimination of wireless microphone use to cover local news. Six markets is damage enough, especially if one of them is the second-largest. But if that’s the number, then let’s agree to it, figure out alternative solutions in those markets for wireless mics and go forward.

If the answer, however, is that it’s potentially more than six markets, the FCC has a major credibility problem. If the goalposts move again, we should all be wary of what’s in store for this auction. For it to be successful, we all need to be able to trust the FCC.

Broadcasters have met the FCC far more than halfway. Now let’s put it in ink and move on to the auction and better solutions for broadcasters, their viewers and public safety.