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FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski delivers tough love to broadcasters

April 13, 2010 | 10:54 am

Julius In a wide-ranging speech to broadcasters, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski tried to ease fears in the industry about the agency's broadband plan, expressed concern about recent battles over carriage fees between broadcasters and cable operators, and warned of a potential crisis in journalism.

Speaking at the National Assn. of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, Genachowski said all the talk in the industry that the FCC is going to forcefully take spectrum from broadcasters to sell to telecommunications companies is a "myth." The goal of the FCC's broadband plan, he said, is not to "confiscate broadcasters' spectrum and drive broadcasters out of business."

As part of the FCC's broadband plan, which was presented to Congress last month, the agency has said it would like broadcasters to voluntarily return 120 megahertz of spectrum -- or airwaves -- allocated to TV stations to allow for quicker mobile phones and improved broadband service. Broadcasters do not want to give up their spectrum and say they want to offer their own mobile services, which could provide a much- needed revenue stream to prop up the sagging local TV business. (For more on this debate, please see this article in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times.)

Though Genachowski tried to assuage fears that the FCC would force broadcasters to cough up spectrum, he said the situation could become dire. "We're at serious risk as a country in not moving quickly enough on our technology infrastructure and in other areas to remain the world's leader in innovation." This is not, he added, "theory or idle speculation. It's math and physics."

Spectrum wasn't the only touchy issue Genachowski broached in his speech. He also talked about the recent round of fights between cable operators and broadcasters over fees that in some instances have led to consumers losing access to TV channels. That happened in New York in March when Walt Disney Co. briefly pulled the signal of its WABC off of Cablevision Systems because it did not think the cable operator was paying a fair price to carry the station.

So-called retransmission consent disputes have been a constant in the industry since Congress passed a law almost 20 years ago allowing broadcasters to seek financial compensation from cable operators in return for carrying their signals. As of late the tiffs have grown increasingly ugly.

Genachowski said the marketplace is the "preferred method" to resolve these issue but that at the same time he is not too pleased with "sudden program interruptions" and the "potential" for bigger cable bills. "Some ask: Is 'free TV' really free when cable rates go up because of retransmission fees," he said. 

Time Warner Cable and several other distributors have asked the FCC to revisit the retransmission consent rules, and the commission is soliciting comments on the topic.

The FCC chairman also suggested that local TV stations can fill the void and help solve the "potential crisis in journalism." Networks, newspapers and other media outlets, he said, "have slashed the number of reporters who provide accountability."

Genachowski, whose voluntary request for spectrum was recently compared by NAB President Gordon Smith to Vito Corleone's making people offers they can't refuse, took that in stride when he took the stage in Vegas.  

"All the good restaurants have been offering to comp me," he cracked.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Julius Genachowski. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images