McAdams On: The Supply-Chain Dilemma

CURIOUS—I hope the bombshell report that landed in my lap Nov. 9 will be considered seriously. I hope it will not be dismissed in a hail of “stall tactic”-type allegations intended solely to delegitimize its merit, and more importantly, its implications for the broadcast television infrastructure in the United States.

The gist of the report is that there are not enough equipment suppliers to pull off a TV repack in 39 months, the prescribed timeframe under the current statute. There were more than twice as many transmitter manufacturers and nearly twice as many tower crews available for the 2009 digital transition, according to the report from Digital Tech Consulting in Dallas, and commissioned by the NAB. This is not a delay tactic, but a simple reality.

The plummeting demand following the ’09 transition in the midst of the Great Recession decimated the broadcast industry supply chain, particularly capital-intense, specialized, heavy-equipment manufacturers.

A total of 174 TV stations were relocated in the 2009 transition. Between 800 and 1,200 will have to be moved in the post-incentive auction repack, according to the supply-chain report—authored by veterans of the ’09 transition, including the former program director of the $2 billion converter-box fund. It further estimates that, given the supply-chain chokepoints, no more than 445 TV stations can be moved within the 39-month window.

Whether or not these numbers come to bear, the very important question this begs is: What happens to stations that can’t be moved within 39 months? Is this really a situation in which possibly hundreds of local TV stations will go off the air? And if so, are we all very sure that we are OK with that?

I, for one, am very uncomfortable with the lack of public discourse on what this transition potentially entails, and that there is no clear vision of what the nation’s communications infrastructure looks like on the other side.