How Broadcasters Make Lobbying Lemonade Out of National Catastrophe Lemons

Jim Snider at New America Foundation has written an excellent piece extensively documenting how broadcasters leverage their response in national emergencies and support of charitable causes to get special regulatory goodies and rules that keep competitors out. You can dowload a copy here.

While in one sense not news to anyone in DC, most people are unaware how broadcasters shamelessly take the coverage of local charity events or other efforts (which (a) are local news and so worth doing anyway, and (b) other companies routinely do) and use them to justify many billions of dollars in privileges such as must-carry rights on cable systems and limiting the ability of rivals such as satellite radio or Low-Power FM to compete. A bit of advocacy expounding, and a few thoughts on Jim’s paper and policy recommendation, below.

Jim’s paper does a pretty good job of laying out three basic claims by broadcasters: we do wonderful charity work, we provide broadcast emergency service, and no one should touch our spectrum because if you do, you’ll create interference and kill free over the air TV and everyone will hate you. Jim observers that broadcasters have had considerable success leveraging the first two claims to help win advanatges over potential competitors (such as getting limits imposed on satellite radio broadcasters or winning must-carry rights from cable operators), and some success at leveraging the third (getting limits on low-power FM).

Jim also argues that the broadcast claims don’t stand up under close scrutiny, but that hasn’t been a problem, because they rarely get close scrutiny. For example, broadcasters usually value their contributed time for fundraising around disasters not merely as a donation of free air time (which, Jim argues, they over value), but also claiming a percentage of the fundraising take (on the unprovable assumption that they contributed substantially to the fundraiser success). So, for example, last weekend’s Jerry Lewis telethon gets valued by broadcasters as a contribution of full-price prime time (even though Labor Day is traditionally a low-viewership weekend) and then they further claim some percentage of the actual contributions as a part of their charitable work. Jim also suggests that traditional broadcasting failed miserably in providing folks with needed emergency information on a timely basis, especially when compared to other technologies.

From my own observations, I think broadcasters have had somewhat less success in the last few years than previously. Yes, broadcasters have tried to score as many brownie points as possible for their 9/11 and Katrina work, and will continue to do so. But they are losing the spectrum fight because the public safety folks want the spectrum. (Counter-push from 9/11 and Katrina on the failure of public safety folks to have interoperability. The public safety community insists it needs a chunk of the returned analog spectrum to achieve interoperabilty. I (and others) have argued that you don’t need new spectrum dedicated to public safety, just shift to a system of open standards and open spectrum and you will achieve interoperability and magnify the effective available spectrum for all kinds of valuable public safety services.) Also, the government’s thirst for auction revenues prompted the government to set a hard date for the DTV transition.

Still, despite some short-term loses, there is no doubt the National Association of Broadcasters remains a lobbying powerhouse and that one of their major weapons is their massive PR campaign around their charity work and as part of the critical information infrastructure. When combined with the ability of broadcasters to cajole/intimidate legislators by providing/withholding coverage during elections, broadcaster requests for legislative action prove very hard to resist.

Jim also makes a number of policy recommendations. Any cynical advocate in the Sausage Factory will tell you these are, for the most part, wildly impractical suggestions that have no chance of passing. Sure, they would all do a lot to address the issues, but given the case for broadcaster power laid out in the paper, what are the odds Congress will really pass laws that encourage free satellite television (common outside the U.S.) or comprehensively rework tthe emergency broadcast system to use technology more efficiently rather than go through broadcasters (and thus reduce the leverage broadcasters have on policymakers)?

Which is why I am glad to have Jim and others like him out there. We need folks willing to push the envelop and move the debate forward. A sad consequence of getting focused on the practical (a must for folks trying to get the things done that we need to get done, and block the things that need blocking) is that we never move the debate forward in new ways. Positive changes are incremental, and we risk having our vision and creativity overwhelmed by the minutia of the pragmatic.

So while I’m not about to lobby for free DBS this month, I’m glad that Jim put the suggestion out there. It inspires people to think of bold new solutions, it encourages thinking about ways to make these “big ideas” practical, and it puts the other side on the defensive. Perpetually yielding without a fight on the “impractical,” without requiring the other side to defend itself, gets to be a very bad and counterproductive habit.

As long as someone keeps their eye on the practical and pragmatic, so the incumbents don’t loot the store while we get bogged down with the “big ideas.” As I’ve said before, we need idealism guided by pragmatism, not one utterly ascendant over the other.

Stay tuned . . .

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