NAB: the lobby that cried wolf

by Michael Calabrese, New America Foundation

Over the past week, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has bombarded Congress with a flurry of doomsday pronouncements, claiming broadcast television is under attack by the FCC and advocates seeking to open unused TV channels (TV white spaces) for wireless broadband and mobile Wi-Fi devices.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, that's because broadcasters always scream "interference!" when faced with any new competition or use of the empty TV band spectrum they are hoarding. In 1974 broadcaster's tried to kill off a nascent TV service called cable television, claiming it would destroy "free" TV. And in 1998, when the FCC wanted to open up the FM band to low-power community radio stations, the claim was intolerable "interference" (later proved false). In 2001, when the first DVRs came out -- and now again in 2008, with TV white spaces -- broadcasters are predicting the imminent destruction of broadcast television.

The unfortunate reality is that NAB lobbyists will say just about anything to maintain their exclusive grip on the broadcast spectrum. As former New York Times reporter and author, Joel Brinkley, observed: "Above all else, [broadcasters hold] sacred the eleventh commandment: Thou Shalt Not Give Up Spectrum."

In "The Lobby that Cried Wolf," the New America Foundation provides a glimpse of broadcasters' lobbying path of deception, highlighting the repeated NAB campaigns to keep others out of their spectrum and providing parallels with the current campaign against white space devices.

For the past 50 years, broadcasters and their respective lobbies have relied upon a broken record of scare tactics, gross exaggerations and underhanded attacks to oppose some of the most important communication advances of the 20th and 21st centuries including cable TV, the VCR, the DVR, FM radio, satellite television and radio, and even cellular phones.

In 2000, the FCC approved low-power FM community radio stations to operate on the third-adjacent channel after thoroughly examining interference issues. In response, the NAB told Congress "this is a prescription for chaos on the airwaves" and flooded the Hill with copies of an infamous audio disc that simulated the supposed interference from low-power stations. Three years later, an independent study for the FCC by Mitre Corp., a military contractor, found no significant interference issues with the FCC's proposed LPFM service.

The NAB predicted similar interference nightmares in regards to low-power television stations and wireless microphones. Yet, today there are more than 836 low-power FM stations, 2,900 low-power TV stations and more than 400,000 wireless microphones operating throughout the TV band on an unlicensed basis. Despite the NAB's pronouncements, neither chaos nor harmful interference ensued.

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