Crying wolf

The broadcast lobby predicts disaster for local TV. Again.

A National Association of Broadcasters political spot running on Reno television stations claims legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid could eliminate local news and high definition television. The ad doesn’t explain how this could happen.

A National Association of Broadcasters political spot running on Reno television stations claims legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid could eliminate local news and high definition television. The ad doesn’t explain how this could happen.


On July 26, the National Association of Broadcasters, one of the nation’s most powerful and ruthless lobbies, released a statement: “NAB is deeply concerned about provisions currently in Senate Majority Leader Reid’s legislation that would threaten the future of a great American institution—free and local television. We will work with him as the process moves forward in hopes that our issues can be addressed.”

Queried by the Reno News & Review for an explanation of what his legislation contained, Reid’s office did not respond. It did release a statement responding to the NAB: “Senator Reid would never support legislation that would threaten people’s access to free over-the-air television.”

What was this all about? Without an explanation from his office of what Reid was trying to enact, there was another source of information—the NAB was running political spots on television stations across the nation attacking the Reid legislation. The problem is, NAB political spots have historically tended to be misleading and even inaccurate. Still, at least four Reno television stations were running them—but no local station provided news coverage to explain them or did the kind of “fact check” segments used for campaign spots for ballot measures or candidates during election campaigns. Such coverage might have served as a corrective to misinformation.

Just as unsettling as the silence of NAB, of Reid’s office, and of local news departments was the lassitude of consumer-oriented media reform groups, which either didn’t know about the legislation or had no position. “Sorry, no stance,” was the email reaction from Paul Porter of Industry Ears, which bills itself “A New Generation Think Tank Dedicated to Promoting Justice in Media.”

“No, Benton does not have a position on this,” wrote Cecelia Garcia of the Benton Foundation (“works to ensure that media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance our democracy”).

Alarmist spots

The NAB political spots running in Reno opened with footage of people watching television, then of a natural disaster of some kind and a weathercaster on a television screen—whereupon the screen went black. This is followed by grainy photos of the U.S. capitol dome, hysterical on-screen messages, vertical rolls of the image, and a somewhat confusing narrative:

“You favorite show is on, or the game, or there’s an emergency and you’ll need to know. So you turn on your local TV—and it’s gone. Right now congressional action may threaten the local TV you rely on. Millions could lose access to free local news. Others could lose their HD unless Congress protects local TV. Tell Congress, protect local TV.”

Virtually none of this was true.

What Reid proposed, as one part of his original debt ceiling bill, was to allow local broadcasters to voluntarily sell off unused or unneeded portions of their spectrum in order to free up space for growing needs for spectrum in other technologies, such as tablets and smart phones.

That mouse of a proposal was the cause of NAB’s elephantine overreaction about local TV being shut down. Industry publications said that what upset broadcast lobbyists was that Reid’s legislation—unlike a similar bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia—did not contain language giving television stations a cut of the money realized from auctioning off the public’s spectrum.

“In an incentive auction, one party, for example a wireless broadband company, offers to pay for another party, a TV station, to voluntarily return their license to operate on a particular frequency,” read an essay on an NAB website explaining the rationale for the stations-go-dark claim. “The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would manage the auction. That may sound like the beginning of a dry economics lecture, but incentive auctions could have a real impact on how many TV stations serve your local community in the future. Because of incentive auctions, many local TV stations could go dark, and many other stations may be forced to reduce their coverage areas. That means less free local TV for you.”

Perhaps, but it’s unlikely any television stations would go dark because of it. Television stations were awarded hundreds of billions of dollars worth of additional channels for free—that is, at public expense and without an auction—in 1997.

The history

In fact, in 1996, as part of its lobbying effort to get Congress to turn over free channels to television station owners, the NAB ran a television campaign that was very similar to the political spots used against Reid’s legislation. In the 1996 case, the NAB similarly urged viewers to help “save free TV.”

“We all watch television,” went the narrative on those earlier political spots. “Well, now we may be watching some of our favorite shows disappear. [This narrative was accompanied by footage of popular television programs fading to black.] Some people in Washington want to tax local TV broadcasters billions of dollars in order to balance the budget.”

There was no tax involved, only an auction in which TV channels would have been sold instead of given away. As it turned out, the lobbyists won, and no auction was held. Instead, congressional leaders told the Federal Communications Commission to give away channels to local broadcasters that were valued at up to $500 billion—slightly more than the current $427 billion cost of the Afghan war. The Wall Street Journal called it a “planned multibillion dollar handout for wealthy TV-station owners.” In that case, too, local news departments failed to do coverage explaining the NAB television spots, which never told viewers about the free channels (“The great HDTV swindle,” RN&R, July 10, 2008).

In 2010 when Congress was considering legislation requiring radio stations to pay the same royalties to performers that are paid by webcasts, television, and satellite radio, the NAB ran television spots that claimed, “The station you listen to could go out of business.” (“TV ads distort issue,” RN&R, Feb. 25, 2010)

Surprisingly, this week even the Reno public broadcasting station, KNPB, was running the NAB political spots. There was no accompanying coverage, such as the station’s Open Line program, to explain the issues involved.

KTVN news director Jason Pasco said coverage of the NAB spots was discussed in his newsroom, but it fell through the cracks when he was out of town for a seminar. When he returned, the Reid legislation was no longer under consideration.

In the end, broadcasters had nothing to worry about. Reid dropped the spectrum language from his bill in perhaps the next-to-last round of maneuvering on the debt limit. But given Rockefeller’s bill and plans by the House Commerce Committee for spectrum auctions, the issue will return, likely with payoffs for the stations.