Smith, Sherwood Tout Broadcast’s ‘Superpower’

Gordon Smith

Asserting the primacy of local broadcasters amid political turmoil, the spectrum auction, 4K and other disruptions and innovations, NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith opened the 2016 NAB Show with remarks that cited Abraham Lincoln, Adlai Stevenson, T.S. Eliot and Will Rogers.

“It seems everyone wants what we have — our content and our spectrum — but nobody wants to do what we do — live and vital localism,” Smith said.

“No other media industry is as dedicated to supporting our local communities, not Google, not Apple, not Pandora, not cable or satellite,” Smith said. “We don’t send a bill to our communities for all the services we provide. Remembering the passion and courage of broadcasters makes what we do worth fighting for. Abraham Lincoln — a man of great courage himself — once said, ‘It often requires more courage to dare to do right than to fear to do wrong.’”

Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president, Disney|ABC Television Group, offered opening remarks. A bestselling author in a past professional life, he made fewer literary allusions, but echoed Smith’s sentiment in a session that focused on the bond between consumers and broadcasters.

“No app, no device is ever going to replace that relationship,” Sherwood said. “That is our superpower. That is our competitive advantage.”

DAUNTING CHALLENGES

While Smith’s tone was largely genial, he delivered what he later conceded was “chest-thumping” about the importance of broadcasters in the regulatory ecosystem. He lauded the FCC for tackling the complexity of the spectrum auction. Yet getting it rolling is just the start, he said.

“Once the auction is concluded, we face another daunting challenge as, likely, a majority of remaining broadcasters will have to move their channel to make room for the wireless carriers,” Smith said.

Appealing for adequate funding and organization of the repack, he added, “Lately, some at the FCC have been so enamored with mobile broadband and Silicon Valley that the Commission’s policy choices have unwittingly put us on an unnecessary collision course toward two Americas: one where the video future is available to those who can afford to pay, and one where they cannot.”

Smith noted a petition that the NAB filed last week along with other media stakeholders in support of next-gen TV, also known as ATSC 3.0.

“The new standard is designed to better align broadcasting’s broadly deployed, spectrally efficient and free service with an increasingly IP-based world, enabling broadcasting to more easily integrate into a wide array of popular devices,” said Smith.

Taking up many similar themes, Ben Sherwood urged attendees to think bolder and bigger. “We must harness some of the radical energy to reimagine our businesses.” He cited some striking statistics about the competitive landscape. First, YouTube offers more video in a 60-day period than the three oldest broadcast networks did in their first 60 years of existence. Second, a viewer has up to 25 ways to access a TV show that once would have been delivered only over the air.

A specific way ABC is responding to this existential threat, Sherwood said, is with a new effort called Clearinghouse, which expands the amount of streaming content that local stations make available to consumers. While not quite a full-blown, stand-alone OTT offering à la CBS All Access, it is a notable step for the network whose Watch ABC app in 2013 was an early pace-setter.

“We are pioneering creative, three-way distribution arrangements among ABC, our affiliates and video providers. These efficient, turnkey deals allow our affiliates to opt into partnerships that work for them, preserving the powerful local-national relationship while expediting the delivery of their signals,” Sherwood said.

The effort is launching with partnerships with DirecTV and Sony. Fourteen of the ABC owned-and-operated affiliates are on board at launch, with others rolling it out in the months to come.

After his solo remarks, Sherwood sat with Smith for a brief Q&A that touched on the notable diversity efforts at ABC, with shows like “Scandal,” “Blackish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” resetting norms. During his solo speech, he had name-checked his predecessor, Anne Sweeney, and ABC’s former entertainment chief Paul Lee for their early strides on diversity.

“America looks and feels different than it did 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago,” he told Smith. “You’ll see us, in harmony with the audience, making shows that are as popular and relevant and compelling as they can be. And that means the people on the shows and the people making the shows are going to be looking at and talking about different things.”

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE

Sherwood and Smith then welcomed longtime ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff, who received the NAB Distinguished Service Award to a sustained ovation. Woodruff suffered a severe brain injury while on assignment in Iraq but has battled back to resume on-air appearances while steering a foundation that has raised $30 million for wounded veterans.

“I have to say that I might be the first person to get an award here for getting his head blown off,” Woodruff quipped. His 10-minute remarks ranged from his summers as a lineman for cable companies to his first on air report in Redding, Calif., to his travels in Beijing as the Tiananmen Square rebellion took shape. Movingly, he described the arduous recovery from his injury, starting in a hospital ward where he lay unconscious for 36 days. Thanks to soldiers who attended to him in the field and got him medical care quickly, he pulled through.

“The men and women who volunteer to serve our country — their quick action and their bravery is the very reason I am alive today,” Woodruff said.