Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski met with most of a hundred state broadcasters out in Las Vegas this week to talk about the agency's spectrum auction plan, according to a commission official familiar with the meeting. The chairman was there to address the National Association of Broadcasters convention on that very topic.
The meeting came after dueling speeches from the chairman and NAB president Gordon Smith that indicated there remained enough real bones of contention for the press and others to pick over. Notably broadcasters' concern over mandatory repacking of channels and the chairman's declaration that "voluntary" could not extend to an unprecedented "veto power" of a successful auction.
While broadcasters Multichannel News talked with after those speeches indicated they still had plenty of concerns, Genachowski, who confirmed to MCN that the meeting took place, called it a "positive and productive discussion focused on practical questions about incentive auctions."
Asked who set up the meeting, the chairman said: "I think there was a desire on everyone's part to get together to have a straightforward conversation."
According to a source familiar with the meeting, the repacking issue was among those discussed.
Nevada Broadcasters Association president Bob Fisher, who was at the Tuesday afternoon meeting at the convention center, came away impressed with the chairman's effort. "He was there and he gave us all of his time," said Fisher.
He put the number of broadcasters at more like 40, representing 20 state associations and some FCC people, including Media Bureau chief Bill Lake. Smith also pointed out that he and his board of directors met with the chairman in Washington last month as well.
Fisher said he felt there was "a concerted effort on the part of the FCC to sit down with people directly involved...We were very appreciative that he sat down with us in Washington and with the state broadcast leadership in Las Vegas. There were some significant questions that were asked," he said. And answered? A qualified yes. "Look, you have to realize that the FCC has a very different role. My job is to protect my stations," he said.
Fisher, referring to Genachowski, said: "When you speak about having direct orders from the President of the United States [Fisher said the chairman was talking about the president's national wireless initiative--to deliver broadband to 98% of the country in five years] he not only has to listen, but he is listening."
Fisher called it "a very positive meeting," saying it was "the first time at the NAB where you have the chairman of the FCC sitting down with so many different states represented."
"I don't think that he was guarded," said Fisher. "He said that this is going to be a voluntary auction, and that it will be successful." Fisher stopped short of saying the chairman expressed a willingness to work with broadcasters. "They are definitely moving ahead, but there was a lot of give and take and nobody was guarded in the questions they asked."
For example? Fisher said he had brought up an important issue for him, that there should be a spectrum inventory taken. He says the chairman assured him the FCC already had gotten a sense over the years of what is being used and isn't being used, or not used to its potential, and that there wouldn't be an inventory "because it was not needed and they already know because they are the ones regulating every aspect of the spectrum." NAB has been pushing for a more thorough spectrum use inventory.
The FCC has been doing broadcaster outreach through a series of webinars and talking to them about practical issues, which will continue, said the source.
But some broadcasters say they need more details about the plan, particularly the impact on those who do not take the FCC up on its auction offer. "We don't have enough understanding of the consequences and implications of what's going to happen," Hearst Television president David Barrett told MCN following the chairman's speech April 12. "The commissioner comes here in good faith. He's a smart guy with a smart staff. But it's imperative that we need to know more details about what the plan needs."
Hearst owns 29 TV stations covering about 18% of the country
B&C's Mike Malone contributed to this report.