Another year is upon us, and it’s time for predictions as to what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2010. Each year, when we look at what might be coming, we are amazed at the number of issues that could affect the industry – often issues that are the same year to year as final decisions are often hard to come by in Washington with the interplay between the FCC and other government agencies, the courts and Congress. This year, as usual, we see a whole list of issues, many of which remain from prior years. But this year is different, as we have had a list topped by issues such as the suggestion that television spectrum be reallotted for wireless uses and the radio performance royalty, that could fundamentally affect the broadcast business. The new administration at the FCC is only beginning to get down to business, having filling most of the decision-making positions at the Commission. Thus far, its attention has been focused on broadband, working diligently to complete a report to Congress on plans for implementation of a national broadband plan, a report that is required to be issued in February. But, from what little we have seen from the new Commission and its employees, there seems to be a willingness to reexamine many of the fundamental tenants of broadcasting. And Congress is not shy about offering its own opinions on how to make broadcasting "better." This willingness to reexamine some of the most fundamental tenets of broadcasting should make this a most interesting, and potentially frightening, year. Some of the issues to likely be facing television, radio and the broadcasting industry generally are set out below.
In the television world, at this time last year, we were discussing the end of the digital television transition, and expressing the concern of broadcasters about the FCC’s White Spaces decision allowing unlicensed wireless devices into the television spectrum. While the White Spaces process still has not been finalized, that concern over the encroachment on the TV spectrum has taken a back seat to a far more fundamental issue of whether to repurpose large chunks of the television spectrum (if not the entire spectrum) for wireless users, while compressing television into an even smaller part of what’s left of the television band – if not migrating it altogether to multichannel providers like cable or satellite, with subscription fees for the poorest citizens being paid for from spectrum auction receipts. This proposal, while floated for years in academic circles, has in the last three months become one that is being legitimately debated in Washington, and one that television broadcasters have to take seriously, no matter how absurd it may seem at first glance. Who would have thought that just six month after the completion of the digital transition, when so much time and effort was expended to make sure that homes that receive free over-the-air television would not be adversely impacted by the digital transition, we could now be talking about abolishing free over-the-air television entirely? This cannot happen overnight, and it is a process sure to be resisted as broadcasters seek to protect their ability to roll out new digital multicast channels and their mobile platforms. But it is a real proposal which, if implemented, could fundamentally change the face of the television industry. Watch for this debate to continue this year.