Likening it to the fee paid for grazing cattle on public lands, National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith said Tuesday that hewing to community standards on content was one of the prices broadcasters pay for their spectrum.
He also said the tussle between networks and affiliates over retrans money was a family fight that he would like to help them resolve and that there needed to be economies of scale for journalism to survive.
Smith issued his comments at a Media Institute lunch Tuesday in Washington, his first to the media-backed First Amendment think tank as NAB president.
Asked if that meant he thought broadcasters have to be subject to FCC indecency rules as part of that price, he said broadcasters "needed to be sensitive to it. I think with some exceptions we are trying to be."
But he also said the emphasis should be on technology, "so we can balance the First Amendment with the need to be competitive and the need to empower parents and shield children from things that they ought not to see."
Smith said he valued and believed in the First Amendment, but said he understood the challenge of competing with subscription services that can "push the envelope all [they] want." But he also said he represented a lot of cattlemen, who know that they are going to pay a fee if they are going to graze their cattle on public land. "The fee that we pay is
localism, engaging the community and observing community standards."
The tension comes from competing with cable and other subscription services. "We respect it and we get it. The answer is in terms of five-second delays, V-chips, content ratings. All of these things are available to us so that we keep faith with the public."
He called it a line broadcasters have to walk, and that they would do that successfully.
"Stuff happens, things are said, wardrobes malfunction. We're trying to keep ahead of this." Taking off his NAB hat for a moment and saying he was speaking as a parent, he added: "I have always wondered why, if it is not good for children to see, why is it good for adults to see."
Smith weighed in on a number of issues, or in at least one case, politically sidestepped it.
On media consolidation: Former Oregon Senator Smith, recalling media ownership hearings from his days on the Senate Commerce Committee, said that the "elephant in the room" was often News Corp.'s Rupert Muroch.
Conceding he was generalizing, Smith said Republicans (he is one) tend not to like newspaper editorial pages and Democrats tend not to like radio because of Rush Limbaugh. "The truth is we need them both," he said, adding that "nobody is big enough to control editorial content."
"With some guidelines," Smith said, "there ought to be a way to allow journalism to survive with economies of scale between newspapers, radio and telvision. And as long as their editorial content is not dictated demonstrably by somebody, then they ought to be allowed to enjoy one newsroom that feeds all kinds of outlets." He said that was in the people's interest, rather than having government get into the newspaper businesses.
Smith said what was needed was allowing some economies of scale so that America doesn't have to rely on the blogosphere for news, "which is sometimes not all that committed to the truth."
On whether networks should get to share in station retransmission fees: "One of the things I learned on the Commerce Committee is that it is not management vs. labor, it's where businesses go to get an advantage over a competitor. So, when I hear about retrans and networks and affiliates, I think what I used to think on the Commerce committee: I have friends over here, and I have friends over there, and I am with my friends"
He called it a "family fight" that he wanted to help them resolve, but added that it was not NAB's role to dictate how it would be resolved. "But I will tell you they need each other."
On network neutrality: "It is a solution looking for a problem. As a student of history it does occur to me that if you disincentivize something, you'll drive capital away...whatever the merits are of keeping the Internet open to all of us, which is also a very laudable goal."
Before the speech, Smith gave a shout out to one audience member, former NAB President Eddie Fritts. He also pointed out that when he was in Congress and Fritts was running the NAB, Smith could always count on three groups being there when he got off a plane: credit unions, car dealers and broadcasters.