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DUMB STUFF SAID IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

commentary By Dennis Wharton

Dumb Stuff Said In Washington, D.C.

By Dennis Wharton

TVNewsCheck, November 20, 2014 10:44 AM EST

Inside the bubble of Washington, DC — which often challenges Hollywood as the true entertainment capital of the world — one hears astonishingly silly proclamations almost daily.

Last week, however, I heard a whopper that deserves entry into DC’s Hall of Fame of Dumb Stuff Said.

The comment came during a panel discussion at the National Press Club. The topic: whether Internet-delivered program content will result in a “break-up” of “bundled” cable TV packages. Panelists included Wall Street investment analysts and academics who purportedly are expert pundits in the communications world.

During the question-and-answer session, an audience member posed a timely question: How does the rise of web-delivered content impact localism? Should the importance of localism be factored into the debate when Congress considers a rewrite of the Communications Act? And is the value of localism worth consideration as the FCC weighs designating “over-the-top” Internet providers MVPD (multichannel video program distributor) status?

Not to worry, replied one of the panelists. “Localism,” he said with smug certainty, “is a myth.”

Broadcasters long ago abandoned localism, the panelist continued. The real concern is the loss of local newspapers at the local level, he said.

SAY WHAT?

But wait, there was more.

The esteemed panelist suggested that the only reason TV broadcasters still hold spectrum is because of the clout of the TV lobby. The FCC’s upcoming incentive auction will rightly re-direct airwaves that broadcasters are “wasting” to a more efficient use — wireless broadband, claimed the panelist.

Those of us in broadcasting have heard the “highest and best use of spectrum” narrative many times before.

It’s a claim that comes courtesy of our competitors — the well-funded pay-TV and wireless lobbies who bankroll “retransmission consent reform” efforts — along with “research” crafted with a pre-determined outcome that dismisses the value of free and local broadcasting.

It’s been apparent for years that there is a concerted effort by broadcasting’s primary competitors to eliminate local TV as a competitive threat to their nirvana world — a world where “free” is eliminated from the telecommunications lexicon and programming content is only made available to those who will pay for it. In their world, the highest and best use of spectrum is used only by those who charge a fee for delivering content.

But only of late have we been confronted with the bald-faced falsehood that “localism is a myth.”

THE ONLY MYTH IS THAT LOCALISM IS A MYTH

So let’s drill deeper into the fundamental question: Is localism a myth? Have broadcasters stopped doing local programming?

The answer, resoundingly, is no.

Every day, across America, broadcasters are delivering local content on multiple platforms that keeps communities informed, educated, and safe in an emergency. Local news is a trusted source of information, and is viewed by the public as a far more credible source of information than what’s on cable, satellite or the Internet.

In fact, local news still commands a huge audience, and more broadcasters are delivering local news at a nearly all-time high.

In many cities, such as Indianapolis, Grand Rapids and Charlotte, broadcasters have begun offering local news as early as 4 a.m. to meet the growing needs of a commuter-driven workforce.

Even cable news networks like CNN – when there is a breaking emergency situation in Anytown, USA – are carrying live coverage from LOCAL TV STATIONS. So much for the “myth” of localism.

And guess where Americans turn for election coverage? You got it – the local broadcaster. Even C-SPAN, the cable network that gets wide praise for even-handed political coverage, gets much of its election programming in the form of live debate feeds from local TV stations.

Indeed, it was a banner year for election coverage, courtesy of local radio and TV stations who offered more free time for candidate profiles, debates, and hard news reporting than in any mid-term election in history.

Earlier this year, the Pew Foundation found that local TV news viewing is up throughout the day. Nearly three out of four adult Americans tune in regularly to local news, compared to just 38% who watch cable news, according to Pew.

Investigative journalism at local television stations has replaced the daily newspaper as the government watchdog. Don’t take my word for it; just look at the number of broadcast TV stations who are Peabody and Edward R. Murrow award winners for quality investigative journalism. From Gannett to E.W. Scripps to Hearst to Dispatch Broadcasting to Cox to Raycom to LIN (and many others), local broadcasters are dedicating huge resources to investigative journalism, holding public officials accountable, and offering tough consumer reporting that is second to none.

A LIFELINE IN CRISIS

Nowhere is the value of broadcast localism more apparent than in times of emergency. We’ve seen time and again the remarkable, boots-on-the-ground reporting by local broadcast reporters during tornadoes and hurricanes. At great personal risk, broadcasters have waded into harm’s way during tornado outbreaks in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri, in Moore, Oklahoma, and in the path of Hurricane Sandy.

And there is no question that local TV weathercasters in Tornado Alley have been responsible for savingcountlesslives.

Broadcast station personnel cover wildfires in the west, flooding in the Dakotas, and record cold temperatures throughout the country.

When cellphones and the Internet crash because of overcapacity, it is the local broadcaster that is always on, always there.

And unquestionably, it is the local broadcaster that galvanizes relief efforts once a crisis or natural disaster is over. Not because the government demands it — but because community service is just part of the makeup of a local broadcaster.

FEMA: TRUST YOUR LOCAL BROADCASTER

Why don’t we ask Craig Fugate if he agrees with the claim that “localism is a myth”? Fugate oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and is responsible for keeping Americans safe when disaster strikes. Here’s what Fugate told CNN as Hurricane Irene was bearing down on the Eastern seaboard three years ago:

“Those local broadcasters are going to be giving you the best information, real time, from those local officials out of those press conferences. So make sure you got your radio and television…and again cell phones get congested, but we did have some success with people text messaging or using social media…but remember cell phones themselves in heavy congestion may not be able to get through. And stay off the phones if it is not an emergency, because other people may be trying to call 911. Use text messaging, use land lines, but again local TV and radio are going to probably be one of the best sources of information from those local officials during the crunch time of evacuation.”

Need more proof that local broadcasting remains the trusted resource for emergency information? Well how about this:

In one of the most prominent acts of domestic terrorism in American history — during the Boston Marathon bombing — President Obama abandoned cable news for the reliable, authoritative reporting from Boston’s LOCAL TV stations. Just as America knows that broadcasters are always on in times of emergency, so too does the leader of the free world.

No wonder that 68% of Bostonians watched local TV news — NOT cable and NOT the Internet — during the search for the terrorist attackers. And no wonder that the Columbia Journalism Review reported the following:

“Local Boston TV news has reported the whole thing, and done an absolutely heroic and tremendous job of it, proving that, even though local TV news is often maligned, it can serve a huge need in times of crisis — and can rise to the occasion when other, national outlets do not.”

Bottom line: When the leader of the free world and the administrator of FEMA say “Trust your local broadcaster,” perhaps it’s time for Ivory Tower academics to acknowledge that free and local broadcasting remains an indispensable resource for every American.

Broadcasters are not perfect, and nor are broadcasting’s critics. Our challenges are many as we move our programming to a multi-platform, multi-screen world.

But as the original wireless technology, broadcasting is reinventing itself before our eyes and will remain available to every American in every community, free of charge.

And yes: localism is alive, well and thriving.

Dennis Wharton is executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters. You can contact him at DWharton@nab.org.