Are you fighting the spectrum grab?

Is the broadcast community asleep at the switch? It certainly appears so. H-e-l-l-o-o?! Are you awake out there? Microsoft, Google, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry (CTIA) and what seems like a cast of thousands all seemingly being aided and abetted by the FCC are on a mission. They want to evict you from your frequency, taking away your most valuable asset: your spectrum!

It is dumbfounding to see the lack of any meaningful effort at engaging the public about this threat to the broadcast community.

The Philadelphia market, which the A.C. Nielsen Company ranks as the nation's fourth-largest DMA, serves my local television. I've yet to hear any locals speak out. What's wrong with this picture? They have immediate access to an influential mass audience, yet I have seen not one station take an editorial position or attempt to inform and educate the public on this.

Certainly, there is a lot of activity behind the scenes, both directly and through lobbyists, by the NAB and via individual stations and group ownership legal departments. These efforts target Congressional committees, elected representatives and FCC commissioners, but we are missing the exponential effect those efforts could have when aided by a motivated public.

When the President speaks, the press refers to it as speaking from his “bully pulpit.” They say this because when the President speaks, he essentially has a guaranteed audience. Broadcasters, by virtue of the business, have their own bully pulpit. Why not use it? Shouldn't viewers know that their over-the-air television option is at risk? Shouldn't viewers know that those third or fourth sets not hooked up to cable or satellite will no longer have signals available, or that those new inexpensive, portable DTV receivers they are buying at Radio Shack are at risk of becoming expensive paperweights? What about those who rely solely on off-air reception?

We're in the midst of launching a major new over-the-air service: Mobile DTV. This is a great time to educate viewers about this coming on-the-go information and entertainment viewing alternative. But, shouldn't they know the loss of spectrum guarantees Mobile DTV will be stillborn?

Also, what about the tactics used by the spectrum usurpers? In a recent CEA Market Research Analysis Brief, in order to support the case for auctioning off broadcasters' spectrum, the CEA maintained that, in a poll it conducted, only 8 percent, or 9 million, of TV households now rely on over-the-air for their TV reception — a decrease from last year. Interestingly, independent consultancy Knowledge Networks (a professional research organization that provides services to the government, academia, pharmaceutical and retail sectors among others) released a study around the same time saying 15 percent, or 17 million, of TV households rely on over-the-air — up from 14 percent a year ago. Moreover, Knowledge Networks said those 17 million households represented 46 million actual viewers, the demographic breakdowns of which is especially interesting. Minorities and low-income households are generally more dependent on over-the -air reception. Twenty-five percent of Asian TV households, 17 percent of African-American households and 23 percent of Hispanic homes rely solely on over-the-air TV reception. In lower-income households, 23 percent of those with annual income less than $30,000 rely solely on off-air for signal reception.

So, we have two surveys: the CEA saying the number of TV households relying on off-air is 8 percent and shrinking; and Knowledge Networks, claiming that number is at 15 percent and rising.

Which one appears more credible?

There is a real story here. Broadcasters have much to lose. You have a bully pulpit. Use it. All you have to lose is the potential of an engaged viewership. There is no shame in copying what works. One wireless industry company that is part of this threat to your spectrum has a successful promotional catch phrase that broadcasters should not adopt but act on: “Rule the Air.”

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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