Mistrust between broadcasters and commission runs rampant at NAB

It took on many of the same erratic qualities as the recent arguments over health care. As the debate over the nation’s broadband policy continues, wildly diverse opinions and a broad lack of trust emerged between broadcasters and the FCC.

A good example was at an NAB joint panel called “Television Broadcast Spectrum: Use It or Lose It,” which was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV). Several hundred broadcasters attended to hear a range of key players.

They included Paul Karpowicz, president of Meredith Broadcast Group; Phil Bellaria, director of scenario planning for the FCC’s National Broadband Task Force; Lawrence Krevor, vice president of spectrum and government affairs for Sprint Nextel; and Rick Ducey, chief strategy officer for consulting firm BIAfn Financial Network. Both FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn and NAB president Gordon Smith were also in the audience.

Robert W. Hubbard, president and CEO of Hubbard Television Group and MSTV chairman, in true tea party style, urged broadcasters to fight for their spectrum. He was critical of recent remarks from former FCC chairman Reed Hundt suggesting that free over-the-air television was no longer a necessary service. “I hope the more responsible heads in government reject this false premise, because it is a false premise,” said Hubbard.

After Hubbard’s speech, many broadcasters focused on whether the broadband plan is actually voluntary for television stations. Many, despite assurances to the contrary by FCC chairman Genachowski and endless FCC staffers at the NAB show, still believe it will be forced upon them.

Bellaria faced the crowd and echoed the FCC chairman. He said he thought it was important to “hear it from the horse’s mouth, the donkey’s mouth, maybe the ass’s mouth” that the FCC was not suggesting any “extreme measures” against broadcasters.

The proposed plan, he said, would only require a “small number” of broadcasters to participate in order to free up the 120MHz of spectrum nationwide that the FCC is seeking.

Yet, Meredith’s Karpowicz didn’t believe Bellaria. “The concept of ‘voluntary’ seems like a little bit of smoke and mirrors,” he said.

Since broadcasters didn’t initially pay for the spectrum, Karpowicz said Congress might not be so willing to let stations get compensated for giving back part of their channels. “That’s a very big jump for Congress to take, to let us reap the benefits of spectrum auctions,” said Karpowicz.

The Meredith president also voiced concern about the FCC’s suggestion of letting stations share spectrum through channel stacking. He said there would be no way to support the delivery of multiple HD broadcasts, such as a Saturday afternoon when three broadcast networks are simultaneously carrying college football games.

Bellaria used humor to deflect much of the blistering criticism. He asked the audience members if they were married. Many hands shot up.

“Okay,” he said. “Now think back to your wedding day. On your wedding day, were you already thinking about who to marry next? We are on our wedding day right now, and we are very confident that the marriage is going to work.”

To that, Karpowicz responded: “The problem is 50 percent of marriages don’t work.”