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FCC's Genachowski Gets Tough With Broadcasters

'He took out his sword and left'

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski’s speech before the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas Monday didn’t go down easy with his audience. Adding insult to injury, he didn’t stick around for questions, either.

“He took out his sword and left,” said one broadcaster in attendance, who requested anonymity. “I was expecting a little question-and-answer or something.”

Instead, Genachowski made it clear what he wanted from broadcasters: their spectrum and publication of their political files online.

Broadcasters have resisted the latter because it would require them to reveal the ad rates charged and the name of the person or group placing the ad. They fear this would put stations at a competitive disadvantage with other media outlets, like cable or radio, that are also vying for political advertising.

“[The FCC] has the authority to do what they’re going to do,” said Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the NAB, in response to Genachowski’s speech. “We’re working with them in good faith. We’ve made it clear [to the FCC] that we’re happy to put online who bought commercial time and how much. What we’re concerned about is putting the rate on the Internet because that has collateral commercial damage."

As for spectrum, the FCC is preparing for the long and complex process of conducting auctions. But without broadcasters voluntarily relinquishing spectrum, it won’t be much of an auction. So Genachowski attempted to convince broadcasters that giving up spectrum would be as good for them as it would be for the wireless industry struggling to meet the inevitable spectrum crunch.

“Broadcasters will benefit from robust mobile broadband,” Genachowski told broadcasters. “Don’t be afraid to be interested in incentive auctions. You’ll receive a considerable cash infusion. Don’t miss the boat on an opportunity you might regret passing up."

Genachowski claimed that many broadcasters have been "ringing the FCC phones showing interest,” although there was no evidence of broadcast interest at the NAB. 

Broadcasters were unimpressed with Genachowski’s sales pitch. “That’s all fine,” said another broadcaster, who also requested anonymity, “but what’s the deal?” Until broadcasters see what the spectrum auction would deliver and how stations will be moved around on the spectrum, there don’t appear to be any takers.

But what really riled broadcasters was that Genachowski showed no inclination to change his mind about the upcoming April 27 order at the FCC’s monthly meeting that will require TV broadcasters to move their political files online.

Genachowski did not mince his words on the issue, attacking broadcasters that have resisted the proposal. “Using rhetoric that one writer described as ‘teeth-gnashing’ and ‘fire-breathing,’ some in the broadcast industry have elected to position them against technology, against transparency, and against journalism,” Genachowski charged.

Genachowski wasn’t buying any of the broadcaster arguments against moving the political files online, calling some of them “preposterous.” “Broadcast news organizations depend on, and consistently call for, robust open-record regimes for the institutions they cover," he said. "It seems hypocritical for broadcasters to oppose applying the same principles to themselves."

Broadcasters have been trying to meet the FCC halfway with alternative proposals, but from Genachowski’s remarks, it hasn’t worked.

Concluded one broadcaster: “Genachowski sounds like a guy who has made up his mind.”

Following a lukewarm applause for a just-under 30-minute speech, Genachowski made a hasty exit.