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Univision chairman wants less talk, more action

Haim Saban, Univision's chairman, called yesterday for the broadcast industry to develop new technology.
Haim Saban, Univision's chairman, called yesterday for the broadcast industry to develop new technology.

As broadcast executives from TV stations around the country gathered in Las Vegas this week for their annual NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) conference, it’s hard to say who was making them angrier – the FCC or broadband providers. Either way, in a shifting landscape where traditional broadcast networks are feeling squeezed from both sides, the consensus is that something has to happen soon. And broadcasters may be left behind if it doesn’t.

That message was directly reinforced yesterday in a conversation between NAB’s President, Gordon Smith, and Haim Saban, chairman of Univision. Saban called on Smith and the rest of the broadcast industry to develop a new transmission standard that will allow TV and radio stations to deliver their signal to all platforms. “Make it freakin happen,” Saban growled, garnering much applause from NAB attendees.

Whether Smith and the rest of TV broadcasters in the U.S. can indeed “make it happen” is an open question. He has enough problems with the FCC, as evidenced by his opening keynote where he basically roasted the agency and its recent decisions. “The FCC has continued to regulate broadcasters as though the world was stuck in the 1970s,” said Smith.

Smith’s remarks fueled the growing friction between broadcasters and the federal commission, as stations complain that cable and broadband providers are being increasingly favored by FCC rulings at their expense. “Do you know what the FCC stands for?” Saban asked. “Friendly Cable Commission.”

Given the heated tone set in session remarks on Monday, it would not have been a surprise if FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wore an asbestos suit when he made his own public appearance at NAB this morning. Wheeler acknowledged this reality at the start of his remarks. “I understand better than most that having a good enemy is a priceless asset,” said the FCC chairman.

But Wheeler, while being careful not to rock the boat any further on stormy seas, seemed to echo the opinions expressed by Univision’s Saban the day before. He called on broadcasters to embrace the open Internet as a business opportunity, “to move from being the disrupted to being the disruptor.”

The FCC chairman pointedly mentioned that Yahoo had plans to expand into local news gathering, long the sole province of TV stations across the country. And he warned that Verizon and AT&T were exploring their own broadcast plans. “They are all embracing something that looks startlingly like your model,” said Wheeler.

In a brief and surprisingly cordial one-on-one session with the NAB’s Smith after delivering his remarks, Wheeler said that he was receptive to the idea of a “National Broadcast Plan” which Smith called for in his keynote yesterday. Smith and NAB believe that they should be given the same considerations as the FCC did when they formed a “National Broadband Plan” starting in 2009. “If Congress will give us the funds, we’ll carry it out,” said Wheeler.

Smith revealed during his discussion with Wheeler today, that the FCC chairman invited him for a private meeting in Washington about ten days ago. While this kind of relationship building with the powerful leader of the FCC may be reassuring to Smith’s broadcast membership, there will be no such meeting with broadband providers and the cable industry.

“Our mantra at the FCC is competition, competition, competition,” Wheeler told the group. In today’s age of the open Internet, this is a motto the broadcast industry would be well served to embrace, and soon.

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