By Deborah D. McAdams
A surprise guest showed up at the Regulatory Face Off on Tuesday afternoon. As Marsha McBride, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Gallagher attempted to engage in a debate about media regulation issues, something started throwing pops and clicks into the audio system.
The trio - FCC Commissioner Adelstein; McBride, FCC executive vice president of legal and regulatory affairs; and Gallagher, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration - intrepidly carried on. McBride, who moderated the session, asked both men to address broadcasters' concerns about interference from unlicensed devices.
In a joint filing with the FCC, the NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) ask that unlicensed devices not be cut loose in the television spectrum, particularly during the DTV channel-selection process.
Adelstein agreed with that. "One of our jobs is to protect broadcasters and licensees from interfering with one another," he said. "That was the impetus for the creation of the FCC."
Gallagher was more enthusiastic about the potential for unlicensed devices to advance innovation and benefit U.S. businesses. "We've enjoyed a wonderful surge of creativity in the unlicensed space in the last four years," he said.
A bit later in the session, a member of the A/V crew walked up to the stage and said something to the panel about a wireless device causing the audio noise, prompting an observation from McBride.
"There's interference already from these devices," she said, much to the delight of broadcasters in the audience; and especially MSTV chief David Donovan, a vociferous opponent of unlicensed wireless devices.
HARD DATE'S NIGHT
On the subject of establishing a hard analog shut-off date, Adelstein was cautious.
"Millions and millions of analog sets are going out of stores, and at some point, someone's going to be very disappointed out there," he said. "We do want to get to a hard date, and to get more spectrum for ultrawideband and wireless, but we don't want to disenfranchise the people with those analog sets."
Gallagher replied that the president's budget empowers the FCC to assess $500 million in fines on broadcasters who remain on the analog spectrum after 2006.
"The desire is that first responders have the tools they need," he said.
Gallagher also mentioned the big batch of emerging technologies waiting for spectrum space, including 802.11, MIMO (multiple in/multiple out) WiFi and UWB.
He advised broadcasters to consider ways to leverage these and other new distribution technologies, rather than cast a hairy eyeball to them. SlingMedia, he described as "what TiVo did for time, this does for place." And with BitTorrent commanding an estimated one-third of the file-sharing traffic on the Internet, "I guarantee you, the show that was on last night is on the Internet today," he said. "This is innovation. Some of it has applications that can be harmful, but whether it's good or bad is up to the people in this room."
Verizon chief Ivan Seidenberg had a similar message for broadcasters in his keynote address, suggesting that telco TV might be complimentary, and not merely competitive, to broadcasting. Adelstein held similar sentiments. "This can be a new opportunity for broadcasters," he said.
Radio broadcasters are under similar pressures from satellite radio providers. Gallagher noted that he possessed a "MiFi," a portable XM satellite radio device.
"Anyplace where there's radio frequency, there's going to be competition," he said.
Adelstein said the transition to digital would be the key to allowing terrestrial broadcasters to stay competitive with satellite.
Then there were the content conversations - VNRs and indecency. Adelstein said the law required broadcasters to publicly disclose paid placements and engage in "reasonable diligence" to find out the source of information.
On holding cable to the same indecency standards as broadcast, Adelstein said not so fast. The legal precedent established in the Playboy case directed the government to adhere to the least intrusive means of regulation.
"The courts have given us fragile authority to enforce indecency rules," he said. "If the court finds what we do unconstitutional, it would take a constitutional amendment to change it."
Content regulation may become even more difficult to defend in court in the future, he said. "The underpinnings of some of these cases are going to be undermined as we move into the digital age. There will be more tools in the hands of parents to control what [kids] see," he explained. "People have to take charge of their own television. The government can't substitute for parents."
By Deborah D. McAdams