A stacked deck

Along with a continued spell of global warming — It's 4 degrees with a windchill of 20 below outside as I write this — the news of impending monumental changes to be imposed on local TV broadcasters is building. We ended 2009 with an FCC chairman who midyear suddenly discovered a “spectrum crisis.” To resolve the crisis, Chairman Julius Genachowski assembled a staff of FCC appointees who seem to be as like-minded as agents Smith, Brown and Jones from “The Matrix.” Genachowski and his squad of single-purpose, pro-government interventionalists have launched an attack on broadcast spectrum unlike anything we've seen since the days of Motorola versus HDTV.

Let's look at just a few of last year's sign posts that might cause a legacy broadcaster to raise an eyebrow:

  • Days prior to Genachowski's confirmation in June, acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps hired Blair Levin to oversee development of a nationwide broadband plan. Levin was part of President Barack Obama's transition team's technology policy group. Guess who else was on that technology group? His next boss, FCC Chairman Genachowski. Levin is an FCC insider and former chief of staff to previous FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.
  • Genachowski, who served as Hundt's chief counsel, was then appointed FCC chairman. Genachowski attended Harvard Law School with (guess who?) Obama and was in charge of developing the president's technology and innovation agenda. (Notice a trend? Could this be Reed Hundt round two?)
  • Shortly after Genachowski arrived, he announced a “looming spectrum crisis.” This crisis forms (in part) the basis of the new chairman's attack on broadcasters' “inefficient” use of spectrum.
  • In late July, Genachowski announced the appointment of Mark Lloyd as the FCC's chief diversity officer. Lloyd has been criticized for his regulatory-focused and anti-commercial broadcaster viewpoints. Two of his most criticized writings include “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio” and “Prologue to a Farce: Communication and Democracy in America.” (Can you spell Fairness Doctrine?)
  • In December, Stuart Benjamin was appointed the FCC's distinguished scholar in residence. Benjamin wrote in his 2009 paper “Roasting the Pig to Burn Down the House: A Modest Proposal,” “… society would benefit if the wireless frequencies currently devoted to broadcast could be used for other services.”

Chairman Genachowski soon had most everything in place: a defined crisis and a team of like-minded, experienced bureaucrats. All he needed was something that appeared to be an impartial justification to reclaim broadcast spectrum.

That justification arrived Oct. 23 in the form of a CEA-backed study, “The Need for Additional Spectrum for Wireless Broadband: The Economic Benefits and Costs of Reallocations,” written by Coleman Bazelon. Bazelon's paper started a firestorm. His solution to the crisis: pay broadcasters to give up their spectrum, kill (or severely restrict) OTA broadcasting and provide free cable or satellite to current OTA homes. Bazelon claims that recovering the broadcast spectrum will ultimately produce a consumer benefit of $1.2 trillion.

More than a trillion dollars in supposed benefits?!

With that, Genachowski has drawn what might turn out to be the winning card.

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