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CES 2015: Wheeler Affirms 2016 Auction Schedule

LAS VEGAS—“Our phone rings every single day with broadcasters” inquiring about the spectrum auction, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said at the International CES here. The callers recognize that “this is an investment transaction,” he continued, citing his 10 years’ experience as a venture capitalist.

Wheeler also voiced optimism that the broadcast spectrum auction will begin as scheduled in early 2016 and said that he expects to confirm that timetable by June. He characterized NAB’s request for a delay as “the broadcasters’ crazy lawsuit” and deemed it “without merit.” (It was not Wheeler who charactarized the lawsuit as "crazy," but Consumer Electronics Association President and CEO Gary Shapiro. TV Technology regrets the error.)Wheeler also emphasized that “the future of the spectrum is spectrum sharing,” referring primarily to use of airwaves amongst many different types of services.

In his wide-ranging on-stage discussion with Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro, Wheeler also discussed the controversial net neutrality process. He said that he will circulate a plan to his fellow commissioners on Feb. 5, with a vote scheduled at the Feb. 26 FCC meeting. Although he did not specify details of the plan, Wheeler indicated that it would take a “just and reasonable” Title II (utility-like regulation) approach with extensive forbearance that would provide exceptions for specific uses. He said that the rules would preclude blocking and paid prioritization, but he noted that sometimes “priority makes a whole lot of sense.”

Wheeler also addressed the Internet Protocol transition and warned that, “If the industry isn’t working [to accelerate it], then it is an obligation for us to step in.” And in a nod to the expansive displays of wireless and mobile technology in the exhibit halls, Wheeler said, “Wireless is what your floor is all about… We’ll spend the next 50 years trying to figure out… how to adapt and adopt to the new realities” of the wireless ecosystem.

Separately at CES, a policy panel examined the prospects for rewriting the Communications Act that affects broadcast and telecom services. David Redl, a Republican staffer for the House Commerce Committee, said that he expects bipartisan support for the plan being pushed by Republican leadership. He did not cite a timetable for action.

Beyond the policy discussions, CES’s expansive agenda included more programming factors than ever. NATPE and CEA unveiled the first findings from a study about TV viewing patterns, especially among young audiences.

Although acknowledging that conventional TV “continues to provide the best quality picture and viewing experience,” the study found that “Millennials value their Netflix subscriptions more than broadcast or cable” and “love video-on-demand and DVRs.” (Part 2 of the study will be released at the NATPE convention in Miami later this month).

At a keynote presentation, CBS President and CEO Les Moonves observed that he spends a lot of time exploring “the different ways we can use our content.” He noted that the network’s new late-night line-up of Stephen Colbert and James Corden will bring a much greater social media presence to CBS’s audience. But he said that social media are not yet reaching their full potential “by a long shot.”

The role of new media was rampant throughout CES. In particular, Dish’s launch of “Sling Television,” which will offer a $20 per month over-the-top service, generated substantial buzz. The new service includes two ESPN channels plus the Disney Channel, several Scripps Networks (Food Network, HGTV) and Turner networks (TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network). Leveraging Dish’s existing DishWorld online infrastructure and will feature VOD programming as well as content from Disney-owned Maker Studios.

Elsewhere around the sprawling CES halls, the changing nature of the industry was ubiquitous as were 4K UHDTVs. Yet the role of televisions is changing. For example, Panasonic, which has indicated it will exit the consumer TV sector, showed only four new flat-panel models, about one-third of its line-up from last year; the company displayed an 8K monitor intended for commercial signage use. At mainstay TV makers such as Sony, Samsung and LG, barely 20 percent of the booth floor space was devoted to TV and video products, while home automation, appliances, audio and other products dominated their exhibit area. Sharp showed a new version of its 8K prototype and a sample of a 4K display that offers an upgrade to 8K-quality imaging.

In addition to more OLED and curved display screens, several companies including LG and Samsung displayed flexible screens that can shift between flat and curved at the push of a button.

As of Wednesday night, more than 160,000 people had registered for CES, Shapiro told the Leaders in Technology banquet—putting the show on course to match or exceed last year’s record turnout.