FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski came 'armed' with olive branches for his speech Tuesday at the National Association of Broadcasters, but also with a definition of voluntary that does not include what he said would be the 'unprecedented' ability to refuse to move if the agency needs to repack their channels.
Genachowski also said spectrum reclamation would not impede mobile DTV, favor urban over rural America, and dismissed allegations of "massive spectrum warehousing," or calls for the FCC to hold off until it had conducted a more extensive spectrum inventory, all issues broadcasters have raised in defense of their service.
The chairman said he would work with them to make "Voluntary" incentive auctions and spectrum reclamation a win-win for them and the country, praised them as being "pioneers in the development and creative multiplatform distribution of "hyperlocal" news," and even gave a broadband shout-out to ABC as among the first with an iPad app within days of its release.
He also gave shout-outs to Raycom for launching community websites and Univision for developing web-only shows. "I'm encouraged to see that many broadcasters are tackling the challenges and seizing the opportunities of a multi-platform broadband world," he said, though that was about broadcasters joining the move to a broadband world rather than a nod to their traditional over-the-air roles.
"Many TV stations have historically been a vital source of local news," he said, "and it's an important positive development that TV stations seek to deploy their news resources to reach people in new ways."
But it was not all pats on the back. He said not everyone is investing in news, pointing out that "of the 28 commercial over-the-air stations in the New York market, only six invest in news coverage of any kind, and In Los Angeles, it's eight out of 23." Those are among the key large markets where the FCC needs broadcasters to give up spectrum for wireless broadband.
One of broadcasters' chief arguments for preserving their service is as a supplier of local news and information. The chairman made it clear that the stations not supplying news could not share in that defense. "Some stations choose not to invest in this type of content," he said, "and some simply can't - it just doesn't make economic sense for them. But it does affect any objective [view] of broadcast markets in view of national spectrum needs."
The chairman said that "voluntary," a term he sprinkled liberally throughout the speech, does mean that no broadcaster will be forced to offer up spectrum, and that "those who do choose to participate will know exactly what the deal is before relinquishing any rights."
"At the same time, however, voluntary can't mean undermining the potential effectiveness of an auction by giving every broadcaster a new and unprecedented right to keep their exact channel location," he said. "This would not only be unprecedented, it would give any one broadcaster veto power over the success of the auction - and be neither good policy for the country, nor fair to the other participants."
Broadcasters reacted with polite applause and remain adamant that 'voluntary' mean just that. "We're in full battle mode," said NAB president Gordon Smith in a speech following the chairman's.
"As long as it remains voluntary we are fine with that, because we aren't going to volunteer," said CBS president and CEO Les Moonves.