Broadcasters Warn of Consequences From Spectrum Auction

Critics charge NAB using scare tactics

WASHINGTON—With any debt ceiling package that passes Congress—if indeed one passes at all—almost certain to contain a provision for a spectrum auction, broadcasters have realized they're running out of time to ensure that they're protected.  With that in mind, on Monday the National Association of Broadcasters unleashed a study that paints a bleak picture of what would happen if the Federal Communications Commission's plan to reclaim 40 percent of broadcast spectrum is implemented.   

The NAB's study found that, under the FCC's plan, 672 of the nation's 1,735 full-power TV stations would have to be cleared from channels 31 to 51, leaving many of those stations without a channel to call their own. In the top 10 markets, 73 TV stations would be without a channel, including 11 in New York City and 13 in Los Angeles. Hardest hit would be FOX affiliates and Hispanic broadcasters.

People at the FCC and on the other side of the debate are decrying the study as "scare tactics," but it's already making its way through the halls of Congress. 

"If [spectrum auction] moves along the regular order of legislation, there are lots of opportunities for us to make our case. If we're part of the debt ceiling, time is more truncated. Once you take another bite at broadcasting, policymakers should understand what would be lost," said Gordon Smith, a former senator from Oregon who now heads the NAB.

Throughout the spectrum debate, the NAB has said it would not oppose any plan to auction off TV spectrum as long as it was voluntary. But what has not been clear in either legislation or in the FCC's National Broadband Plan is how TV stations currently on the dial between 31 to 51 would be repacked in to channels 14-30—if they choose to stay in business, that is.

"We would like to see an FCC repacking report. We'd like Congress to see that. We've been asking for it," Smith said. "This has enormous consequences to members of Congress."

The NAB's study also estimated the cost of moving certain stations—new antennas, new transmitters, even new towers—at a total of $2.5 billion. Cable systems would also have to modify their systems. And if an auction isn't conducted in a way that includes certain protections for broadcasters, said Bruce Franca, the NAB's vice president of science and technology, it would have a "devastating effect on broadcasting's ability to provide mobile digital TV."

The FCC and two industry groups, CTIA—The Wireless Association, and the Consumer Electronics Association, all took issue with the study.

While none of the three argued with the NAB's methodology or offered an alternative scenario or model, all three took issue with the NAB's conclusion that a minimum of 210 TV stations would be without their own channel and could go off the air .

"The NAB study sets up and knocks down a purely fictional straw man," said Mchael Petricone, the CEA's senior vice president of government affairs. "The study presumes an unrealistic scenario in which every single existing TV station continues to operate over-the-air."