WASHINGTON—Local news is crucial to democracy, ATSC 3.0 is crucial to local broadcasting, media ownership rules are an anachronism and let's get this spectrum auction over with already, the head of the broadcast lobby told a group gathered in Washington today. Former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, now president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, delivered the following edited remarks at the Media Institute’s November Communications Forum Luncheon.
“A quote from one of our founding
fathers, James Madison, also comes to mind when thinking of local radio and
television stations’ importance in our daily lives. He said: ‘A
popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it,
is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will
forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must
arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Madison knew then as we know now
that knowledge is power and that the media, when functioning properly, helps
spread that power among the people. ‘Popular information,’
as Madison described it, is one of the foundations of our Democratic ideals. It
is the most absolute and necessary ingredient to vigorous public discourse. And
this room knows better than any other that Americans cannot ‘be their
own governors’ without it. That’s why today –
nearly 250 years since Madison spoke those words – the right to speak
freely without fear of incrimination, the right of the press to challenge the
government and root out corruption, remains one of the most important rights
our founders enshrined in the Constitution.
Broadcasters have been, and continue
to be, proud stewards of these ideals in the modern media age. It is a mission
we hold dear to our hearts, and one that we are proud to share with our friends
at the Media Institute.
I don’t know if you heard,
but we had an election last week. As the events around the country over the
past seven days suggest, many are still adjusting to a dramatically changed
landscape here in Washington, D.C. As we digest the election results and the
will of the people, Madison’s words ring true now more than ever.
Broadcasters recognize their core duty to provide the public with the ‘popular
information’ required to help American citizens be their own
There has been a great deal of focus
on the media’s role during and following the election. For
broadcasters in particular, self-evaluation is nothing new; as part of their
mission, broadcasters constantly reflect upon how they do their jobs and seek
ways to better serve the public. This includes questions about the amount and
type of information explored to fact-checking and evaluating what issues really
matter to the American people. This is happening now, as it happens after every
'MEDIA IS NOT MONOLITHIC'
In reflecting on our role in
American discourse, it is also critical to look at the ways various elements of
the ‘media’ serve our electorate. First, it is critical to
recognize that today’s media is not monolithic. It is far more
complex. Print newspapers are struggling mightily to survive in an online
world. And social media is perceived by many as a ‘Wild West’
of misinformation, even the source of fake news, where sorting fact from
fiction has become increasingly more challenging.
It’s not that Americans
don’t have enough access to information today. In fact, many of us
may suffer from information overload; it can be overwhelming. In this digital
world, it is very easy for the average American to find information that
confirms their beliefs rather than challenges them. This is where local
broadcasters play such an important role in our democracy. They present the
public with facts, provide information about issues that matter to people where
they live. And, perhaps more importantly, local broadcasters are always the
go-to lifeline in times of crisis.
I am reminded of what my former
Senate colleague, Chuck Schumer from New York, once said about broadcasters. He
said that in a time when cable news media is becoming incredibly polarized and
partisan, local news has become even more valuable to our democratic dialogue.
When Americans want ‘just
the facts,’ they know they can turn to their local stations to get
the news straight, without the shouting, finger-pointing and drama. When they
want to find out what’s going on in their community—like
what’s happening in their schools, if their favorite sports team is
winning or what the weather will be—they tune into their local
A recent Pew Research/Knight
Foundation survey confirms this view. It revealed that among those who are
civically engaged—the people who are actively involved in their
communities, the ones who vote and volunteer—a great majority said
they turn more often to local TV and radio to get the news they trust, far more
than social media. In fact, by a 7-1 margin, local broadcasting was viewed as a
more trusted news source than social media.
Even Facebook chief executive and
co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said recently that Facebook’s role
isn’t to be ‘arbiters of truth.’
Our communities’ deep
reliance on local broadcasters compels us to keep innovating. Access to your local stations is
always available for free with an antenna and no one but local broadcasters
provide this ubiquitous public service. Broadcasters are also striving to make
our signals available on every device at every location – including
wearables, connected watches and other technologies that are on the horizon.
Everyone wants what broadcasters have – our content and our spectrum
– but nobody wants to do what we do –provide local news and
information, live and free to all Americans.
This is an exciting time for
broadcasting as new technologies are giving us the ability improve the delivery
of our content to our listeners and viewers. As a new Congress and administration
begin in 2017, we look forward to educating new and returning legislators about
the important role of local radio and television stations in the American
lifestyle, and the issues that impact broadcasters’ ability to
innovate and serve the public.
Our issues do not register
Republican or Democrat, but rather, reflect the needs of the communities we
serve. And our communities expect us to be everywhere they are–on
every device and every platform.
5G BUT NOT ATSC 3.0?
That means broadcasters need to be competitive
with other services in the media and telecommunications ecosystem. We need the
freedom to develop new products and services, and the ability to move quickly,
unhindered by unnecessary regulations.
We are excited about the development
of Next-Generation Television, also known as ATSC 3.0. This is the
world’s first broadcast standard that offers the advantages of
broadcast and broadband. Next-Gen TV promises to deliver those sharp ultra HD
images that everyone loves, plus interactive features, customizable content and
multichannel immersive sound.
Viewers can look forward to more
choices, more channels and more flexibility – all for free. Mobile
devices and TV sets equipped with Next-Gen receivers will make TV available
The only thing that stands between
viewers and this new enhanced free service is government action. Unlike other
competitive services, local stations can only begin to innovate after receiving
Federal Communications Commission approval.
This past spring, NAB, along with
consumer electronics, public safety and public television advocates, asked the
FCC to bless a Next-Gen TV standard for those who voluntarily choose to adopt
Recently, the FCC voted to make
expansive amounts of high-band spectrum available for wireless services,
including 5G service. This follows action after action where the agency has
done whatever it can to help other industries lead the world in their
While we commend the commission for
moving quickly to lay the groundwork for the Next-Generation of wireless
service, we urge the FCC to move just as quickly to unleash the Next-Generation
of free broadcast television service to the benefit of viewers.
Likewise, NAB is also working to
ensure that radio is available on every device – as radio’s
audience continues to evolve, we must continue to evolve with them.
Broadcasters have worked tirelessly
to craft free-market deals with major phone carriers to promote access to radio
receivers in many of their Android smartphones.
We commend these carriers who have
unlocked FM radio, recognizing its value to their customers and our listeners,
especially in times of emergency when cell phone networks are not as reliable.
And we urge Apple to do the same.
Local broadcasters are where
Americans turn first for breaking news and safety information. The potentially
lifesaving information provided by local stations should be made accessible to
as many people as possible, as has been recommended by FEMA Administrator Craig
More than 265 million people listen
to radio each week. Radio is strong and we will leverage this strength to
continue offering not just the radio everyone knows, loves and expects, but an
interactive experience that listeners desire.
But unfortunately, outdated media ownership
regulations dating back to the 1970s could hurt broadcasters’ ability
to innovate and fairly compete in today’s media landscape.
The communications ecosystem
dramatically changed with the advent of the internet.
Sadly, newspapers are struggling in
today’s digital world. Even prestigious, long-established newspapers
are facing layoffs and major budget cuts as they attempt to adapt to a
competitive media landscape. As a result, broadcasters are more and more left
carrying the mantle for substantive reliable news and essential investigative
And yet, outdated broadcast
ownership rules still remain intact – a regulatory holdover from 1975
that prevents common ownership of a printed daily newspaper and even a single broadcast
station in the same local market. These rules are longer necessary, and in
today’s media landscape are unfair and hurt competition.
These ownership rules apply only to
broadcast stations and not to our direct competitors. Isn’t it ironic
that the FCC will allow mega-mergers in the pay-TV industry, but continues to
hold local stations hostage under decades-old, outdated rules? The competitive
environment for local broadcasting has changed and regulatory reform is desperately
needed so that broadcasters can keep innovating to effectively serve their
Also on the horizon is the conclusion of the
broadcast spectrum incentive auction. We eagerly await the final stages of
the auction to learn how many broadcasters will have to move their channels to
make room for wireless carriers, and what resources will be needed to complete
We hope for a successful conclusion
of the auction. We believe that policymakers will ensure there is sufficient
time and funds available to allow broadcasters to complete their moves. We must
ensure that no viewer is left in the dark because a station is forced off the
air or left to foot the bill for expenses that Congress did not intend and
stations cannot afford.
The coming year will be a pivotal
one in so many ways for us as a nation, and for the broadcasting industry. I
believe that in these transitional times, local radio and television stations
become even more relevant to and more trusted by our communities. As
broadcasters, we carry the torch of freedom and integrity, and we must use this
to question those in power and to find the truth.
I was reminded of this important
mission a few years ago when I accepted an invitation to speak to our
colleagues in South America. I was a bit surprised when asked to speak about
broadcasters’ role in preserving the freedom of speech. In our
country, we take for granted that this is a fundamental human right. But some
of our neighbors are not fortunate to have this freedom.
What brought this issue home to me
was a tour of old Montevideo, Uruguay. The ancient stone gateway to that city
still stands after some 400 years. It does so because of the keystone
at the top of the structure that holds it all in place. Take the keystone out
and it all comes tumbling down.
In a similar way, this is the role
of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of speech and
press contained in it. And keeping the keystone of freedom
securely in place – the freedom of speech and of the press
– is our highest calling.
It’s a mission I feel
grateful and honored to defend as the head of the National Association of