The future of media? Workshops.

During the past six months, the Federal Trade Commission has explored the viability of journalism and of traditional media in an increasingly competitive environment through a series of roundtables, with appearances by, among other luminaries, Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington. Not to be outdone, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched its own “Future of Media” proceeding, replete with multiple workshops, considering the perceived threat to journalism posed by the fragmented media environment.

To date, these workshops have debated whether traditional news outlets, including local broadcasters, will remain a viable choice for consumers awash in a sea of new media. The debates have focused on old media’s business paradigm, much of which depended on limited local ad-delivery options to cross-subsidize news gathering and other high-cost content. The solutions proposed have ranged from slashing costs to developing new digital (over-the-air and web-based) business models to governmental subsidies.

What the workshops have not yet resolved is what, for broadcasters, is a fundamental concern: cutbacks in unencumbered broadcast spectrum.

Because spectrum may deliver content to consumers wherever located, it is an increasingly valuable competitive edge in an increasingly mobile society. Because spectrum is one of few commodities within complete control of a federal government with limited resources, it also is a highly attractive option for a government looking to drive innovation – or, more pragmatically, to raise new revenues.

Recent events confirm the accelerating loss of broadcast spectrum. In June 2009, 108 MHz of what had been broadcast spectrum was re-allocated to other purposes at the end of the digital television transition. Nine months later, the FCC released its National Broadband Plan, which seeks the reclamation of another 120 MHz formerly devoted to free, over-the-air television in order to expand subscription wireless services. Because the five low-VHF channels are often technologically unsuitable for full-power digital broadcasting, local television broadcasters soon may be able to deliver their free, over-the-air content to consumers on only 25 six-megahertz channels of usable spectrum, much of which cannot be simultaneously used in adjacent markets and all of which may become cluttered by unlicensed devices taking advantage of the FCC’s November 2008 conclusion in the television white-spaces proceeding.

Where can broadcasters turn? Workshops – including the ongoing panels in the upcoming FCC broadcast ownership proceeding. In past reviews of broadcast-specific regulations, the FCC ultimately has treated broadcasters as a distinct market, competing against only other broadcasters. The Broadband Plan and the Future of Media inquiry show that reality is otherwise, with free, local broadcasts routinely competing against subscription services. What neither the Future of Media or broadcast ownership proceeding has yet demonstrated is whether either will recognize that the ongoing reclamation of spectrum also must prompt a re-assessment as to how the FCC should view competition and diversity outside of the increasingly narrow slice of media directly subject to FCC regulation.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has recognized the tension between the FCC reducing usable broadcast spectrum on one hand and the perceived loss of media and broadcast competition and diversity on the other. In a statement published in connection with the National Broadband Plan, Commissioner Clyburn announced her concern “about sacrificing an essential service to our communities in favor of new apps that have nothing to do with ensuring ... meaningful access to the news and information critical to our daily lives.” She added that “[w]hile the Plan acknowledges the current public interest mandates and goals of broadcast spectrum, it does not contain a rigorous analysis of the practical implications of its proposed actions on the public interest,” including what impact “a spectrum sell-off would have on women and minority-owned broadcast television stations.”

For decades, the FCC has based many of its broadcast-specific regulations on the principle that spectrum is scarce. To the extent that the FCC continues to increase the scarcity of broadcast spectrum, a regulatory justification founded on such scarcity recalls the apocryphal child, accused of killing his parents, demanding mercy because he is an orphan. So this year’s proceedings – and yes, workshops – offer the FCC another opportunity to develop a sustainable rationale for continuing broadcast regulations ... and broadcasters a chance to encourage the FCC to reflect the realities of today’s marketplace in a wide array of broadcast-specific regulations.