How Mass Media Use Crisis Communications for Political Gain:
The Broadcast Industry, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina
J.H. Snider, Ph.D.
Research Director, Wireless Future Program
New America Foundation
1630 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Prepared for delivery at the
Political Communications Section Pre-Conference
of the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association,
Annenberg School for Communication, Philadelphia, PA
August 30, 2006.
How Mass Media Use Crisis Communications for Political Gain:
The Broadcast Industry, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina
It’s a common observation that crises such as wars, recessions, stock market meltdowns,
ethics scandals, and natural catastrophes often drive the public policymaking process. A
crisis reveals a problem and then a public consensus emerges that policymakers must do
something about it. The policy debate then centers on the best means to solve the
Interest groups well understand the political logic of such crisis moments. Accordingly,
they reframe their own self-interested agendas to be in accord with the new crisis induced
agendas. Although these reframed agendas may help solve the stated problem, they are
likely to do so relatively inefficiently and ineffectively, and, when mere rationalizations,
may aggravate the problem. Nevertheless, when backed by powerful interest groups and
concerning relatively technical issues where the links between means and ends are not
widely understood, their reframed agendas may be highly persuasive or at least provide
political cover for actions that would otherwise be discredited as special interest politics.
In this paper, I explore how local TV broadcasters framed the communications crisis
revealed by 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina for their own political gain.
Broadcasters’ Public Service Claims
Local TV broadcasters use tens of billions of dollars worth of government assets, mostly
in the form of spectrum (popularly known as the “public airwaves”), but do not pay
monetary compensation to the government for their use. Instead, broadcasters claim to
“pay” with various kinds of public service. For example, every two years since 1998
local TV broadcasters have tallied their annual public service contributions in a report
that is widely used in their lobbying campaigns, especially in Congress and at the FCC.
For 2005, the claimed figure for the combined public service of local TV and radio
broadcasters was $10.3 billion,1 which comes to a present value of $129 billion, using an
8% discount rate. Some would consider that a fairly close approximation for the market
value of the spectrum the broadcasters occupy. Broadcasters also claim to provide a
“free” information service, which they argue is of inestimable value for poor people and
the preservation of American democracy.2
In addition to free use of government owned assets, broadcasters ask the government to
regulate and restrict potential competitors, lest the competitors kill the golden goose
providing the public with so much service. Recent examples of such regulation include
preventing satellite radio broadcasters from providing either local or free (“ad-
1 National Report on Broadcasters’ Community Service (National Association of Broadcasters:
Washington, D.C., June 2006).
2 See J.H. Snider, “The Myth of Free TV,” Spectrum Series Working Paper #5 (Washington, D.C.: New
America Foundation, June 2002).
Snider / Page 2
supported”) programming;3 and requiring cable, satellite, and telephone companies to
carry local TV broadcasting stations free of charge.4 At the moment, there are more than
a half dozen major rulemakings at the FCC where the broadcasters are asking for special
treatment at least in part because of their public service contributions.
One of the most important and frequent public service claims broadcasters make is that
they provide exceptional service to the American public in times of local crises. Here’s
a typical formulation of the broadcasters’ public service contributions from the President
of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Eddie Fritts, in the aftermath of 9/11:
"Is the American public better served by television now than it was forty years
ago?" The answer, resoundingly, is "Yes." … Every day and in every
community, local broadcasters serve the public interest in a variety of ways.…
Several years ago, the National Association of Broadcasters undertook a program
to systematically document the amount of public service generated by over-the-air
radio and television stations. In our last census, we discovered that in one year
alone, broadcasters generated $ 9.9 billion in public service in the form of donated
airtime for PSAs--money raised for charity and disaster relief.
Broadcast public service also encompasses the coverage of emergency weather
alerts that can mean the difference between life and death for viewers in the path
of a tornado or hurricane….
Broadcasters also chronicled the events of September 11, 2001, with a degree of
commitment and professionalism that drew universal praise. In the midst of the
worst media recession in fifty years, stations all over America provided viewers
with round-the-clock, advertising-free coverage of the horrific attack for nearly a
In the aftermath of September 11, stations rallied the American spirit with PSAs,
charity fundraising appeals, blood drives, and pleas for tolerance for our
immigrant neighbors. I could not have been more proud to be associated with the
broadcasting community at that time. Indeed, it was broadcasting's finest hour.5
The 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina (“Katrina”) cases are the two most prominent recent
examples of the broadcasters’ use of crisis communications in their lobbying efforts.
Broadcasters used those cases to make three controversial public service claims, what I
3 Woolley, Scott, “Broadcast Bullies,” Forbes, September 6, 2004, p. 134.
4 J.H. Snider, “Should DTV Must-Carry be Expanded, Sunset, or Preserved As-Is?” Spectrum Series
Working Paper # 12 (Washington, D.C.: New America Foundation); Testimony of David L. Donovan,
President, Association for Maximum Service Television, before the Senate Commerce, Science, and
Transportation Committee, September 8, 2004; and Comments of Eddie Fritts, President of the National
Association of Broadcasters, at the hearing on the Digital Television Transition before the Senate
Commerce Committee, U.S. Senate, July 12, 2005.
5 Edward O. Fritts, “TV: A Vast Oasis of Public Interest Programming,” Federal Communications Law
Journal, No. 3, Vol. 55; May 1, 2003, Pg. 511.
Snider / Page 3
call: 1) The Charity Claim, 2) The Emergency Information Claim, and 3) The Spectrum
Use Claim. These public service claims were then incorporated into their overall
lobbying strategy for preserving and expanding their current government granted
Generally, these crises revealed broadcasters’ diminished role in communicating crisis
information and sent a striking message that America’s traditional reliance on
broadcasters for emergency information was based on obsolete technology and an
outdated vision of the threats facing America. The broadcasters’ PR task was to turn
these perceived deficits—while never quite admitting that they were deficits—to its own
political advantage. Of their three claims, they emphasized the charity claim the most,
perhaps because they recognized it was least susceptible to attack. The spectrum use
claim was the only one of the three to come under vigorous, direct, public attack.
The Charity Claim
Local TV broadcasters have made their charitable fund raising for victims of 9/11 and
Katrina a centerpiece of their lobbying campaigns. The National Association of
Broadcasters (NAB) in 2002 released figures showing that both radio and TV
broadcasters had raised $1.2 billion for disaster victims during 2001, and in 2006 released
figures showing that they had raised $1.3 billion for disaster victims during 2005.6 The
figure for 9/11 fundraising was $1 billion and for Katrina and Tsunami fundraising,
combined in one figure, also $1 billion.7 Broadcaster claims concerning such
contributions can be found in Congressional testimony, written comments submitted to
FCC rulemakings, testimony at FCC hearings, an NAB publication called At Your Service
sent to members of Congress and FCC commissioners, the NAB’s glamorous annual
Service to America Summit attended by famous media personalities and top
policymakers (this year featuring former President Bill Clinton), in one-on-one handouts
distributed to members of Congress, and in the broadcast industry trade press.
For example, here is the wording of the disaster charity claim contained in the
broadcasters’ glossy 98-page report covering the year 2005. The claim is followed by a
special nine-page section of the report called “Katrina: A Special Report,” which
provides anecdotes illustrating how broadcasters’ helped during Katrina.
[L]ocal radio and television broadcasters raised a projected $1.2 billion for
victims of disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding.
Included in this figure are funds raised by local radio and television stations in
their relief efforts for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Approximately
6 National Report on Broadcasters’ Community Service (National Association of Broadcasters:
Washington, D.C., June 2006); A National Report on Local Broadcasters’ Community Service (National
Association of Broadcasters: Washington, D.C., April 2002).
7 The $1 billion figure was prominently cited at the NAB’s annual Service to America Celebration in
Washington, D.C., featuring former President Bill Clinton, June 12, 2006.
Snider / Page 4
$1 billion of the $1.2 billion disaster relief total resulted from station efforts that
were directly related to the events of September 11.8
Broadcasters then take such claims and use them in their lobbying. For example, here is
NAB President Eddie Fritts testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee on
proposed legislation concerning radio concentration:
While the industry continues to change, one thing has remained constant: radio's
commitment to serving local communities. This attribute distinguishes us from all
competitors -- from online music to satellite radio -- local service to the
community is that which separates us from our competition.
Radio broadcasters are proud of their commitment to localism. A recent NAB
study found that in 2001 alone radio stations contributed 7 billion dollars worth of
public service to their communities. That number includes the value of Public
Service Announcements, as well as monies raised for charities, disaster relief, and
…. And no dollar figure can account for radio's work following the events of 9-
11. Stations across the country raised donations for rescue equipment and victims,
organized blood drives, and overall, reassured and informed Americans during
that dark time.9
Although the NAB’s numbers are impressive, there are certain questions they don’t
answer. First, the numbers seem to imply that the NAB is actually contributing these
dollars because they are mixed with other numbers, such as the value of public service
announcements, that are based on the value of the broadcasters’ advertising time donated
to non-profits. In this case, however, the money summed up involves contributions from
those outside the broadcast industry.
Second, it is not clear what percentage of the fundraising should be credited to the actions
of local TV broadcasters versus others. Broadcasters typically serve to raise awareness
for the fundraising activities of others such as charities and local retail establishments;
that is, the fundraising is essentially a joint effort. Partners include such groups as Fry’s
Markets, First Mariner Bank, Kroger Stores, United Blood Services, Wal-Mart, Grand
Ole Opry, American Red Cross, United Supermarkets, Salvation Army, and Papa John’s.
Third, it is not clear how much fundraising would decline in the absence of the
broadcasters’ free publicity. There are other vehicles to publicize charitable activities,
including via in-store promotions, concerts, sports events, direct mail, e-mail, churches,
synagogues, newspapers, cable, satellite, and Internet. The charitable propensities of the
American public could conceivably still be substantially exercised without the
8 National Report on Broadcasters’ Community Service (National Association of Broadcasters:
Washington, D.C., June 2006).
9 Written statement of Eddie Fritts, President, National Association of Broadcasters, on Media Ownership
before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, U.S. Senate, January 30, 2003.
Snider / Page 5
Fourth, it is not clear to what extent broadcaster fundraising drives are actually costly to
broadcasters. Broadcasters typically partner with local establishments that are also local
advertisers. The free publicity for those advertisers cultivates goodwill that can help
generate future ad sales. Broadcasters, like other local businesses, also find it in their
business interest to cultivate a reputation for being a champion of the public interest.
Fundraising during a disaster, when advertisers are often unwilling to advertise and
viewers flip the channel to watch disaster programming on other channels as soon as they
see an ad, may result in relatively little lost advertising revenue.
Although the broadcasters’ claims might fall short of scholarly methodological rigor, I
was unable to find a single instance in the public record of anyone questioning their
claims. Undoubtedly, it would have been considered in poor taste and politically unwise
to publicly question their claims, if only because broadcasters clearly did make a
substantial contribution to relief efforts. Nevertheless, the inability of the Washington,
D.C. policymaking community to engage in such rigorous questioning may degrade the
quality of its policy work.
The Emergency Information Claim
Broadcasters have long touted their special role in providing emergency information to
the public in times of crisis. In the words of NAB President Eddie Fritts, "Local
broadcasters are the eyes, ears and voice to communities during times of disaster."10
Typical of the widespread acceptance of this view, the nation’s emergency alert system
was called, until 1997, “the emergency broadcast system.” In the broadcasters’ eyes,
emergency alerts and broadcasting alerts were essentially synonymous. Here’s a
sampling of the broadcasters’ claims:
National Association of Broadcasters, National Report on Local Broadcasters’
Community Service, 2002:
Recognizing that Long Island was the home of many of the individuals and
families directly affected by the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center,
WBLI-FM in West Babylon, New York dropped everything to help its local
community in a time of need. Immediately after the attacks, the station shifted
from its usual music format to a 24-hour news and talk format.WBLI staff weaved
together network news feeds, live press conference coverage, listener phone calls
and patriotic music into six days of commercial-free, community focused
Within minutes of the September 11 attacks, WMAL-AM in Washington,D.C.
had reporters at the Pentagon and other affected areas.The station provided up-to-
the-minute information about school and business closings and traffic conditions,
10 Press release of Federal Emergency Management Administration with the National Association of
Broadcasters, Announcing Disaster Preparedness and Relief Effort, August 10, 1998.
11 National Report on Local Broadcasters’ Community Service, April 2002, NAB, p. 18.
Snider / Page 6
plus information about how listeners could help by donating dollars, blood and
National Association of Broadcasters, National Report on Local Broadcasters’
Community Service, 2006:
T]he Los Angeles Times called [WWL-AM in New Orleans] “a lifeline sent by
airwave.” In a similar article, The Wall Street Journal commended WWL and
noted that the station’s “ability to continue broadcasting was vital for stranded
listeners.” Before, during and after Katrina, WWL provided a constant
stream of emergency news and information to the people of New Orleans and the
Twelve hours before Katrina was projected to make landfall along the Gulf Coast,
WMJY-FM in Biloxi, Mississippi went to wall-to-wall coverage and stayed that
way for the duration of the crisis…. With WMJY as one of the only outlets for
getting information to the public, the station’s studio became a critical stopping
point for business leaders trying to reach employees, government officials
conveying storm updates and emergency information, and local residents looking
for family members or friends who were out of touch. 14
National Association of Broadcasters, FCC Comments, 2006:
Informing the public of national, state and local emergencies is the hallmark of
broadcasters’ public service. Through the use of live news coverage and EAS,
broadcasters have invested millions of dollars to ensure that the local
communities they serve have timely access to critical, and often life-saving,
information. The most recent examples of this commitment to public service are
the heroic efforts of broadcasters to stay on-air to deliver round-the-clock news
coverage to their communities during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
As a universal and free-over-the air service, local broadcasters’ television
household penetration rates reach 98.2% of the approximately 112,232,500
American households…. Through their ability to reach virtually all Americans,
broadcasters are keenly aware of the unique role they play in disseminating
Although the Commission states that, due to the Internet’s “inherent robustness,”
it should “serve an important role in the distribution of alerts and warnings,” NAB
cautions that during times of significant disasters, access to both electrical power
and Internet services may be disrupted or completely cut-off. In fact, as MSRC
recognized, “[e]mergency communications plans must take into account the
12 National Report on Local Broadcasters’ Community Service, April 2002, NAB, p. 22.
13 National Report on Broadcasters’ Community Service, June 2006, NAB, p. 10.
14 National Report on Broadcasters’ Community Service, June 2006, NAB, p. 10.
Snider / Page 7
probability of widespread power outages when AM and FM radio is the only way
to communicate to battery powered receivers in the community.”….
For delivery of emergency information from the media to the public, broadcasters
continue to be the most reliable and robust means of distribution. 15
Association of Maximum Service Television (MSTV), Congressional testimony, 2004:
Upon hearing news of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Americans huddled
around television sets in schools, businesses, homes, and elsewhere to keep
informed. On that chaotic day, local television broadcasters provided their
communities with words of comfort and instruction not only from national
political leaders, but also from their own governors and mayors. Lives were saved
because television stations were able to disseminate critical information from
government officials to the American public….
Local television broadcasters recognize that one of their most important functions
is to provide critical "real time" information to viewers in times of emergencies,
both manmade and natural. Unlike the pay television services, local broadcasters
are able to reach nearly 100 percent of a local community. Television
broadcasters are thus an essential part of emergency preparedness....
The significance of our role was confirmed by the FCC shortly after the
September 11th attacks, when it created the Media Security and Reliability
Council (MSRC) to develop a comprehensive national strategy for securing and
sustaining broadcast and other video communications facilities throughout the
United States during terrorist attacks, natural disasters and all other threats or
attacks nationwide. As MSRC stated in its Final Report earlier this year,
maintaining local mass media communications with the public is an essential part
of a community's ability to cope effectively with emergency situations….
Similarly, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has stated that broadcast
television and radio are "the first choice" for disseminating information to the
public during a terrorist attack.16
National Association of Broadcasters, FCC Comments, 2003:
The value of the public’s local broadcast service is even greater at a time when
the nation’s homeland security is at risk. Homeland Security Secretary Tom
Ridge has stated that “obviously television and radio” are the “first choice” for
disseminating information to the public during a terrorist attack.17
15 Comments of National Association of Broadcasters, in the Matter of Review of the Emergency Alert
System, Docket 04-296, January 24, 2006, pp. 3, 5
16 Testimony of David L. Donovan, President, Association for Maximum Service Television, before the
Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, September 8, 2004.
17 Cited in Joint Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters, the Association for Maximum
Service Television, Inc., and the Association of Public Television Stations in the Matter of Additional
Spectrum for Unlicensed Devices Below 900 MHz and in the 3 GHz Band, ET Docket No. 02-380, April
17, 2003, p. 18.
Snider / Page 8
Surely, 9/11 and Katrina illustrated broadcasters’ contributions to crisis communications.
But from other perspectives they also illustrated how much the world had changed and
marginalized the local TV broadcasters’ terrestrial, over-the-air communications network.
9/11. All the major terrestrial, over-the-air TV stations in New York City, including
ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, were located on top of the World Trade Towers. The World
Trade Towers were the tallest point in New York City and thus the ideal place for a TV
station transmitter because higher towers allow broadcasters to cover greater distances
and thus expand their audience reach. All these TV stations were at least temporarily put
out of service on 9/11 and wouldn’t be restored to full service until four years later.18
One, CBS, had a backup transmitter on the Empire State Building and was able to
quickly switch to it. But at 500 feet lower in elevation than the World Trade Center, the
Empire State Building could not provide the same coverage. In short, in one of the
greatest local disasters to befall a U.S. city, there was little or no terrestrial, over-the-air
broadcast TV coverage at the time it was most needed.
Moreover, this was not an aberration. Terrestrial, over-the-air TV towers are a sitting
duck for terrorists who might want to disrupt over-the-air broadcast communications.
The towers are highly centralized and in a place nobody can miss. In the New York City
TV market, the equivalent of a single conventional bomb was able to disrupt emergency
broadcast communications to 35 million people. The pressure for broadcasters to
congregate in one place is also great. It dramatically reduces the cost of building
redundant towers and local opposition to building the TV towers (because building a
2,000 foot TV tower invites NIMBY opposition in most places). It also makes it easier
for people on the outskirts of a TV market to improve their TV reception. When all the
TV transmitters are clustered together, rooftop antennas can be pointed at that one spot to
receive the strongest possible signal.
Yet the lack of terrestrial, over-the-air TV transmission proved not to be a major problem.
By the time of 9/11, the TV world had undergone many changes since its early days.
More than 90% of residents in the New York City TV market got their TV via cable or
satellite.19 New York City, with its tall, dense buildings that block direct signals from a
transmitter to a TV set, is especially inhospitable to terrestrial, over-the-air broadcast TV
signals. In addition, many people were able to get emergency information via alternative
media such as the Internet or broadcast radio. In other words, by 2001 terrestrial, over-
18 “N.Y.C. Broadcasters Back at Full Power 4 Years After 9/11,” Communications Daily, September 6,
19 See Television Bureau of Advertising data on over-the-air viewers by TV market cited in Comments of
the Association of Public Television Stations in the Matter of Media Bureau Seeks Comment on Over-the-
Air Broadcast Television News, MB Docket 04-210, August 11, 2004. The specific figures were 730,257
of 7,376,330 household in the New York City DMA received their primary TV signal terrestrially, over-
the-air. New York City TV broadcast lobbyists, represented by the Metropolitan Television Association,
cited a 20% figure; e.g., see Ken Kerschbaumer, “Signal from the Feds: Report says NYC stations will get
aid; but that’s news to them,” Broadcasting & Cable, December 31, 2001, p. 28. The 20% figure then
stuck in the media; e.g., see “Broadcast,” Communications Daily, May 14, 2003. Note also the
Metropolitan Television Association’s role in seeking DTS rights, mentioned elsewhere in this paper.
Snider / Page 9
the-air broadcast TV was only one of multiple platforms for providing emergency
As for the content rather than the terrestrial, over-the-air delivery of local TV
broadcasters’ crisis communications, the same marginalization had occurred. New
Yorkers could get up-to-the-minute information from any number of national TV
networks such as CNN, FOX, and MSNBC as well as the websites of leading
newspapers, magazines, and Internet search engines such as Yahoo, Google, and MSN.
And the world of bloggers was just beginning. Indeed, 9/11 was such a high profile
story that national TV networks often bumped off the programming of their own local TV
A tragic twist is that the terrestrial, over-the-air broadcast TV stations, rather than saving
lives, may have indirectly been responsible for the unnecessary loss of hundreds of lives.
It is a common practice when there are fires in tall buildings for people to be evacuated
via rooftop helicopter rescues. At least one city, Los Angeles, even requires that all tall
buildings have helipads. During 9/11, hundreds of people tried to get to the roofs and
numerous helicopters tried to provide rooftop rescues but were unable to.20 Many factors
outside broadcasters’ control contributed to this result. But the existence of such
valuable, high profile TV assets on the top of the World Trade Center meant that access
to the roof had to be tightly secured; in this case, so tightly secured that no one was able
to break the lock to get to the roof. The space taken up by the transmitters and the
energy emitted by the transmitters also made it dangerous for helicopters to land on the
roof. Helicopters are advised not to land on roofs with high power RF transmitters
because the emissions can jam their vital radio equipment.21
Of course, none of this was intentional. It was just a byproduct of the very architecture of
the terrestrial, over-the-air TV broadcasting system. The focus on the innocent loss of
life resulting from 9/11 meant that the tower story that was emphasized in the broadcast
industry trade press and subsequent FCC filings and congressional testimony was the
tragic loss of six TV broadcast engineers who managed the TV towers and who
apparently themselves were not able to reach the roofs.22
Katrina. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. As with 9/11, there
was no advance warning from the broadcasters’ emergency alert system, which can
partially be blamed on the fact that no local or state official asked the broadcasters to run
such an alert.
20 Paltrow, Scott J., and Queena Sook Kim, “No Escape: Could Helicopters Have Saved People From Trade
Center? --- Police Choppers Hovered, But Roof Was Locked; Rescuers Feuded in Past --- A Daring
Mission in 1993,” Wall Street Journal, 23 October 2001, p. A1. See also Buncombe, Andrew, “Lack of
Planning Undermined 9/11 Rescue,” The Independent (London), May 19, 2004, p. 24.
21 Massey, Curtis S.D., “The facts and dangers of rooftop transmitters on high-rise buildings,” Firehouse
Magazine, April 1, 2005, p. 70.
22 E.g., Alleyne, P. Llanor, “They Loved Broadcasting: Engineers who died on 9/11 were dedicated to
helping their stations on the air,” Broadcasting & Cable, September 9, 2002, p. 30; and Testimony of
David L. Donovan, President, Association for Maximum Service Television, before the Senate Commerce,
Science, and Transportation Committee, September 8, 2004.
Snider / Page 10
The most striking fact is that there is not a single report of a local TV station in New
Orleans providing continuous over-the-air transmission throughout the storm period. For
one reason or another, every one of the terrestrial, over-the-air TV towers in the New
Orleans area was shut down at the time of greatest need. Moreover, even if the TV
broadcasters had been able to transmit their signals over-the-air, the absence of electric
power throughout the New Orleans area meant that very few people would have been
able to receive their signals.
According to FCC data, on August 29, 2005, 17 local broadcast TV stations in states
located on the Gulf Coast were knocked off the air, including 11 of 28 stations in
Louisiana. No breakdown for the New Orleans TV market was provided.23
The TV broadcasters were not unique in their communications breakdown. Cable TV,
landline telephone, mobile telephone, public safety, and radio broadcast services also
suffered widespread breakdowns.24 What appears to be unique about the TV broadcast
breakdown was the lack of industry and FCC data to confirm the TV outages in the New
Orleans market. With other communications media, fairly precise data for outages in the
New Orleans area were available. For example, we know that of 41 radio stations in the
New Orleans area, three kept up continuous service and a fourth only suffered very brief
downtime.25 The press was also inundated with stories of the heroic efforts of one of the
radio stations, WWL-AM, to provide news coverage of the catastrophe. But there was no
mention of terrestrial, over-the-air broadcast TV in the immediate aftermath of the storm,
and the NAB provided no public survey including such information. The FCC did
provide aggregate figures for Louisiana stations downed in the storm. But this was
qualitatively different information than the number of TV stations downed in the areas
directly affected by the storm. For radio broadcasters, the FCC provided geographic
maps with this localized information.26
Contrast the absence of TV broadcasters’ braggadocio to their statements just twelve
months earlier concerning their performance with Hurricane Charley. Here is a filing
they submitted to the FCC on August 17, 2004:
Broadcasters jumped into action and fulfilled their most important role –
informing the public – as Hurricane Charley devastated Florida on Friday.
Stations from Ft. Myers-Naples through Tampa-St. Pete had dropped regular
23 Appendices to written statement of Kevin Martin, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission,
Hearing on Public Safety Communications from 9/11 to Katrina: Critical Public Policy Lessons, before the
Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, U.S. House of Representatives, September 29,
25 Report and Recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission of the Independent Panel
Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks, June 12, 2006, p. 12. See also
NAB’s collection of press accounts, Snapshot of Broadcasters’ Efforts to Stay on the Air During Hurricane
Katrina, September 2005, filed as an appendix to Comments of National Association of Broadcasters, in
the Matter of Review of the Emergency Alert System, Docket 04-296, January 24, 2006.
Snider / Page 11
programming for full-time emergency information…. Most TV stations in all
three markets continued wall- to-wall storm coverage well after the storm had
passed. It appeared that most radio stations were running hurricane coverage as
well. For NBC affiliates, general managers had to decide how to deal with the
scheduled opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics at 8:00 pm Friday
while continuing to keep the public informed about the storm aftermath. "It was
an easy decision," Waterman Broadcasting GM Steve Pontius told RBR/TVBR.
"I am convinced that we saved the lives of a lot of people."27
Perhaps the most ironic statement was made by Louisiana Senator David Vitter during a
Congressional hearing just six weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. The NAB was using
its hurricane coverage to justify delaying the return of spectrum at the end of the digital
TV transition for the use of public safety (see the discussion below). It also used it to
support its argument for so-called cable multicast must-carry legislation. This legislation
would require all cable companies to carry all broadcaster digital TV signals either free of
charge or on the best possible terms a local TV broadcaster could negotiate. In an era
when only 15% of Americans receive their primary TV signal terrestrially over-the-air,
this is an extremely valuable right. Senator Vitter used the TV broadcasters past
hurricane emergency information performance to support the broadcasters’ position.
Louisiana is a relatively poor state. We have a much, much higher percentage of
non- cable hookup sets, and so that, over-the-air broadcast is an absolutely
essential component for public safety, particularly when we face regular threats
on the Gulf from hurricanes. So making sure that every set gets this capability to
remain operating is no trivial matter, and it's not merely a matter of convenience.
It absolutely goes to the core of public safety. I'm concerned about first
responders and homeland security and all of that. That's a legitimate concern
essentially on the other side of the issue, pushing for quicker conversion, but in
my part of the world, the dominant concern is the one I'm taking about with
regard to weather and hurricane threats.28
Ultimately, whatever problems terrestrial, over-the-air TV broadcasters might have had
with their networks in the wake of the hurricane, NAB was able to claim a triumph, with
NAB President Eddie Fritts telling his members one month later that Hurricane Katrina
was “local broadcasting’s finest hour.”29
However, the most important lessons of 9/11 and Katrina for the delivery of crisis
information to the public might not turn out to be what the broadcasters emphasized in
their lobbying campaigns.
27 Citing an article in Television Business Report (TVBR) August 16, 2004, Ex Parte Comments of National
Association of Broadcasters, in the Matter of Review of the Emergency Alert System, Docket 04-296,
August 17, 2004.
28 Comments of Senator David Vitter at the hearing on the Digital Television Transition before the Senate
Commerce Committee, U.S. Senate, July 12, 2005.
29 Anne Torpey-Kemph, “The Media Elite,” Mediaweek, September 26, 2005.
Snider / Page 12
Strikingly, broadcasters provided no evidence that the emergency information they
provided was actually better or more pervasive than their competitors. For example, XM
Satellite Radio devoted two channels of its 100+ channel lineup to 24/7 coverage of the
Katrina crisis (the two channels were called “Emergency Alert Radio” and “Red Cross
Radio”).30 Broadcasters praised themselves frequently for cutting away from regular
programming to provide emergency information. But was this a better approach than
dedicating a certain percentage of channels to Katrina coverage? Similarly, did the
broadcast networks and their local affiliates provide better coverage than non-broadcast
channels such as CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News or Internet news services such as
www.timespicayune.com (the website of the largest daily newspaper in New Orleans)?
Perhaps the most important lesson from these two crises is that the world of emergency
communications to the public has evolved tremendously since the 1950s when terrestrial,
over-the-air broadcasters were given pride of place in the country’s emergency broadcast
system. The public now has a lot of alternative real-time information sources.
These crises demonstrated that the platform independent Internet was the most robust
source of terrestrially delivered emergency information, and satellite the most robust
source of broadcast delivered emergency information. The Internet was designed to
survive a nuclear catastrophe by deploying a decentralized network that could instantly
route around any bottlenecks, and satellite transmission was completely unaffected by the
terrestrial based disruptions of 9/11 and Katrina. To the extent that people lacked electric
power to run their satellite receivers, this was a problem that also affected other
communications providers. Satellite radio can run on car power and batteries just like
terrestrial radio, and some portable satellite radios are as small as an iPod. New York
City Mayor Bloomberg captured the new mindset when he refused to allow local TV
broadcasters to use Governor’s Island to build a new standalone 2,000 foot tower to
replace the towers on the World Trade Center. Bloomberg wanted to use the island to
expand the City University of New York and thought a 2,000 foot tower out of nowhere
would damage the university while providing minimal disaster relief to New York City.
Bloomberg’s argument was that 9/11 highlighted terrestrial, over-the-air TV
broadcasters’ vulnerability to breakdown should another catastrophe occur.31
The FCC’s independent panel to review the impact of Hurricane Katrina on
Communications Networks (“Panel”) concluded that satellite communications
demonstrated surprising robustness in comparison to their terrestrial counterparts:
Satellite networks appeared to be the communications service least disrupted by
Hurricane Katrina. As these networks do not heavily depend upon terrestrial-
based infrastructure, they are typically not affected by wind, rain, flooding or
30 See written statement of Tony Trujillo, Chairman, Satellite Industry Association, Hearing on Public
Safety Communications From 9/11 to Katrina: Critical Public Policy Lessons, Before the Subcommittee on
Telecommunications and the Internet, Committee on Energy and Commerce, United States House of
Representatives, September 29, 2005.
31 Higgins, John M., and Ken Kerschbaumer, “Mayor Bloomberg says NY broadcasters' planned 2,000-foot
tower is not welcome on Governors Island,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 24, 2002, p. 34.
Snider / Page 13
power outages. As a result, both fixed and mobile satellite systems provided a
functional alternative communications path for those in the storm-ravaged
The Panel also concluded that the current broadcast-centric emergency alert system
needed to be overhauled:
The Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) and its predecessor systems have long
made use of broadcast radio and television stations as the principal tools for
communicating with the public about emergencies and disaster situations. The
Panel heard stories of heroic efforts by broadcasters and cable operators to
provide members of the public impacted by Katrina with important storm-related
information. However, there were also reports of missed opportunities to utilize
EAS and limitations in existing efforts to deliver emergency information to all
members of the public. New technologies may address some of these limitations
by facilitating the provision of both macro- and micro-level information about
impending disasters and recovery efforts.33
FCC Chair Kevin Martin, in his testimony before Congress one month after Katrina,
observed: “If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely
solely on terrestrial communications.”34
One of the most important quantitative factual claims the broadcasters made in numerous
public proceedings is that they, as emergency information providers, served virtually
100% of American households. This assertion helped make their argument that they not
only were not emergency information dinosaurs; they were the most successful
emergency information medium in the U.S. For example, as quoted above, the NAB
claimed: “As a universal and free-over-the air service, local broadcasters’ television
household penetration rates reach 98.2% of the approximately 112,232,500 American
households.” Then it concluded its analysis: “For delivery of emergency information
from the media to the public, broadcasters continue to be the most reliable and robust
means of distribution. 35
32 Report and Recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission of the Independent Panel
Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks, June 12, 2006, available at
http://gullfoss2.fcc.gov/prod/ecfs/retrieve.cgi?native_or_pdf=pdf&id_document=6518378566. See also
written statement of Tony Trujillo, Chairman, Satellite Industry Association, Hearing on Public Safety
Communications From 9/11 to Katrina: Critical Public Policy Lessons, Before the Subcommittee on
Telecommunications and the Internet, Committee on Energy and Commerce, United States House of
Representatives, September 29, 2005.
33 Ibid., p. 17.
34 Written statement of Kevin Martin, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission, Hearing on Public
Safety Communications from 9/11 to Katrina: Critical Public Policy Lessons, before the Subcommittee on
Telecommunications and the Internet, U.S. House of Representatives, September 29, 2005.
35 Comments of National Association of Broadcasters, in the Matter of Review of the Emergency Alert
System, Docket 04-296, January 24, 2006, pp. 3; See also Comments of the Association of Public
Television Stations in the Matter of the Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on
Communications Networks, EB Docket No. 06-119, June 19, 2006, p. 3; and Testimony of David L.
Snider / Page 14
Terrestrial, over-the-air broadcast TV does indeed in some sense “penetrate” close to
100% of households. However, unlike what is implied, the meaning and practical
implications of such a statement are not self-evident. Only about 15% of primary TV sets
now receive reception terrestrially over-the-air. The rest receive reception over cable and
satellite. Some TV sets receive no external reception at all; they are used to play
prerecorded media and attached to game players. Of the remaining 85%, most are not
connected to households with rooftop antennas (an increasingly rare sight in America),
and most cannot receive good reception indoors via a built-in TV antenna (which is why
rooftop antennas are used in the first place). Many Americans live behind mountains or
buildings that rule out over-the-air reception, regardless of whether they have any type of
antenna. Most Americans with digital TVs did not purchase one with a built-in
terrestrial, over-the-air tuner (such sets are technically called “TV monitors”) because
most digital TVs are purchased to be connected to cable, satellite, or computer
information sources, not terrestrial, over-the-air information sources. And of those digital
TVs with such a tuner, many couldn’t pick up the over-the-air signals when the
broadcasters made their claims because the great majority of broadcasters weren’t
transmitting their digital signals at full power. (To receive their free digital spectrum,
broadcasters were initially only legally obligated to transmit digital programming; they
weren’t obligated to transmit at full power. And even when their deadline to transmit at
full power arrived, many ignored it because the number of digital over-the-air tuners in
use was too small to warrant the equipment and energy expense of operating at full power
when the FCC did not police its power level rule.)
Nor did “penetrate” mean actual viewing audience, regardless of delivery platform,
because the viewing audience for broadcast TV programming is less than 50% of the total
TV viewing audience and a much smaller fraction of Americans’ overall consumption of
Nor did “penetrate” mean potential access to free TV because broadcast TV
programming delivered via satellite or cable is not free and in the case of satellite TV is
an optional, fee-only service.
The most favorable definition of penetrate is that, thanks to congressionally passed must-
carry laws, all major competing delivery platforms for local broadcast TV, including
cable and satellite, must give terrestrial, over-the-air broadcast TV the option of either
carrying their programming for free or, depending on their bargaining power, whatever
carriage fee the broadcasters can negotiate. In this highly restricted sense, broadcast TV
programming has a near 100% penetration.
But even if 100% is defined in such a loose fashion, broadcasting is not unique in being
able to make such a claim. Satellite TV covers 100% of America, so anyone could
theoretically subscribe. Cable TV passes approximately 97% of TV households, so the
Donovan, President, Association for Maximum Service Television, before the Senate Commerce, Science,
and Transportation Committee, September 8, 2004.
Snider / Page 15
vast majority of Americans could also subscribe to that.36 Satellite and terrestrial radio
also both pass essentially 100% of Americans. And close to 100% of U.S. households
are passed by telephone plant (although only about 94% actually subscribe to telephone
service), so have potential access to some form of Internet service, even if only through a
Perhaps even more relevant to public safety claims is the penetration rate that is likely to
occur after rather than before a crisis hits. To this question there is no simple answer
except that in New York City immediately after 9/11 and in New Orleans immediately
after Katrina, the “penetration” of terrestrially delivered over-the-air broadcast TV
programming was abysmal.
It’s true that, unlike cable or satellite, broadcast programming is an ad-supported service
and thus doesn’t require a subscription fee. But the great majority of Americans who
have access to “free” (i.e., ad-supported) broadcast TV nevertheless choose to pay a
subscription fee for their TV because of the greater programming selection and higher
quality reception offered by such services. Moreover, the primary reason that North
America, unlike every other inhabited continent on the face of the earth, doesn’t have free
local satellite programming is that both the terrestrial radio and TV broadcasting
industries have fiercely lobbied against allowing the creation of such a service.
On the utter discrepancy between the stated commitments of policymakers to fostering
free, local, and robust emergency communications and their actual behavior blocking
such services via satellite, nothing is more illustrative than current satellite broadcast
radio legislation being considered by Congress.37
Terrestrial broadcasters have always fought tooth-and-nail to prevent satellite
broadcasters from providing free (ad-supported), local service. Reports Scott Wooley in
Existing stations thrive on an array of perks won by radio operators, including
free use of the airwaves (XM and Sirius, by contrast, had to pay almost $200
million combined for their spectrum) and an exclusive exemption from paying
royalties to performers. But the NAB's real forte has been in the modes of attack
and delay, persuading regulators and Congress to impose daunting restraints on
the satellite rivals….
In waging a crusade to stop satellite radio, the Fritts forces exhorted the nation's
radio station managers to contact their congressmen and tell the "truth about
satellite radio." "They got broadcasters across the country to hammer like hell on
the Congress and the FCC," says [an] ex-NABer. The NAB literature's central
talking point was straightforward: "There is no need for ‘more' radio service, no
36 Sixth Annual Report: Annual Assessment of the Status of Competition in Markets for the Delivery of
Video Programming, FCC 99-418, January 14, 2000.
37 See also the comments in the Matter of Petition Filed by the National Association of Broadcasters
Regarding Programming Carried by Satellite Digital Audio Radio Services, Docket No. 04-160.
Snider / Page 16
need for national radio service and no need for more competition in radio
service."… Thus competition would leave consumers worse off, the NAB said in
an Orwellian conclusion: "Adding a new service would likely decrease the overall
service to the public.”…
By the time the FCC approved the entry of XM and Sirius in 1995, victory was
illusory. Regulators burdened them with an array of restraints that strengthened
old radio's grip on advertisers and viewers. The FCC's license forbade free,
advertising-supported satellite stations, instead requiring firms to sign up paying
subscribers…. Worst of all the FCC rules made it illegal for the new satellite
services to broadcast locally.38
Satellite radio, however, has recently pursued two loopholes which would allow it to
broadcast locally and attract local advertising dollars without violating the law. The
first is to transmit local information nationally and then have local satellite radio
receivers only play the relevant local information. Thus, folks in New York City and Los
Angeles can tune into local weather reports even though the information is actually
broadcast nationally. With the new generation of satellite radio receivers that can store
and retrieve information, providing this type of “local” information becomes more
feasible than ever before.
The second strategy is to acquire new spectrum that the FCC had designated as flexible
use spectrum in keeping with its philosophy of eliminating “command and control”
regulations, which are viewed as merely inefficient “red tape.”
Using public safety as its excuse, the Congressional legislation proposes to close these
two loopholes. H.R. 998, the “Local Emergency Radio Service Preservation Act of
2005,” had 136 cosponsors by August 15, 2006, and a companion Senate Bill, S. 2418,
had bipartisan support. The so-called findings of these bills include the following:
Local radio broadcasting is particularly important in times of emergencies or
disasters when other means of communications may not be available….
There is substantial governmental interest in promoting the continued availability
of free radio programming….
[T]he ability of local stations to continue to provide local news and other services
and to ensure communications during emergencies could be jeopardized by a
diversion of the listening audience away from local radio programming.
Based on such findings, the bills propose that
1) digital audio radio satellite service licensees shall not, using any capability either
on a satellite or in a radio receiver, provide services that are locally differentiated
or that result in programming being delivered to consumers in one geographic
38 Woolley, Scott, “Broadcast Bullies,” Forbes, September 6, 2004, p. 134.
Snider / Page 17
market that is different from the programming that is delivered to consumers in
any other geographic market; and
2) digital audio radio satellite service repeaters shall be restricted to simultaneously
retransmitting the programming transmitted by satellite directly to digital audio
radio satellite service subscribers’ receivers, and may not be used to distribute any
information not also transmitted to all subscribers’ receivers.
Whether or not these bills can get a majority of votes in their respective chambers may
not ultimately matter. In 2000 the NAB sought to restrict competition from new Low
Power FM stations. The legislation its advocates proposed to do this was highly
controversial and never got a majority vote. But such a vote was unnecessary because the
broadcasters got their preferred legislation attached at the last minute to a must-pass
appropriations bill passed just days before the fall election.39 Such a scenario could play
out again with this legislation this fall.
Almost as amazing as the satellite broadcast radio bill in Congress is the satellite
broadcast TV notice of proposed rulemaking issued by the FCC on June 23, 2006.40 It
proposes to double the current allocation of spectrum for satellite broadcast TV services
such as currently provided by DirecTV and EchoStar. But nowhere does it explicitly
propose to allow, let alone encourage, the formation of a free, local satellite broadcast TV
The Spectrum Claim
TV broadcasters have traditionally argued that terrestrial TV broadcasting represents an
ideal use of the spectrum they occupy and that therefore is no opportunity cost to society
of such use. Both 9/11 and Katrina threatened to undermine this claim by vividly
demonstrating the value first responders placed on it.
Broadcasters’ Beachfront Spectrum. Broadcasters occupy 402 MHz of low frequency
spectrum, commonly characterized as “beachfront” spectrum because of its favorable
propagation characteristics. Low frequency spectrum has longer waves that can easily
pass through walls, people, precipitation, and foliage. Among other things, this makes it
ideal for mobile, pervasive communications. Higher frequency spectrum can only be
used for line-of-sight communications, such as direct links between two microwave
towers. This makes it good for fixed communications such as direct links between two
microwave towers or between a satellite in the sky and a fixed TV receiver dish on earth.
However, fixed services have close wired substitutes, such as optical fiber, whereas
mobile services do not (for example, it’s not practical to connect a car to a wire), so to the
extent that communicators value mobile, pervasive communications, low frequency
spectrum is more valuable. Auction valuations reveal this to be the case. Low frequency
39 Sasha Samberg-Champion “Rollback in Conference Spending Bill,” Television Digest, October 30, 2000.
40 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Matter of The Establishment of Policies and Service Rules for the
Broadcasting Satellite Service at the 17.3—17.7 GHz Frequency Band and at the 17.7-17.8 GHz Frequency
Band Internationally, and at the 24.74-25.25 GHz Frequency Band for Fixed Satellite Services Providing
Feeder Links to the Broadcasting-Satellite Service and for the Broadcasting Satellite Service Operating
Bidirectionally in the 17.3-17.7 GHz Frequency Band, IB Docket 06-123, Released June 23, 2006.
Snider / Page 18
spectrum such as the TV broadcasters occupy has gone for as much as a $1 billion/MHz
for national coverage. At much higher frequencies, auction valuations per MHz have
been less than a thousandth as much.41
Many telecom analysts have argued that terrestrial over-the-air fixed broadcasting
represents an extremely inefficient use of low frequency spectrum; fixed broadcasting
service can be provided far more efficiently via cable TV using no spectrum or satellite
TV using high frequency spectrum.42 Moreover, as customers want more choice and
broadband Internet service becomes the primary medium for information services, they
argue the broadcasting model of information delivery will continue to decline as a
component of the overall communications system.
Nevertheless, these arguments had largely been politically ineffective. In the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress awarded local TV broadcasters a 2nd TV
channel to migrate to digital TV. TV broadcasters were supposed to return one of their
two channels at the end of the digital TV transition. Ken Ferree, Chief of the FCC’s
Media Bureau, characterized the broadcast industry’s attitude as “They’d rather eat their
children than give up this spectrum.”43
Of the returned channels, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 set aside four, occupying 24
MHz, for public safety. But the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 also set no fixed date for
the return of the channels, and many analysts thought it could be many decades, if ever,
before it happened in the face of broadcaster opposition. 9/11 and Katrina helped to
change that political dynamic by highlighting the opportunity cost to public safety of the
broadcasters continued use of such a large swath of low frequency spectrum.
Broadcasters quickly realized it was politically impossible for them to challenge the
claims of the public safety community to the broadcast spectrum. Instead, they focused
their efforts on winning a laundry list of pending pet proposals that they claimed would
speed the DTV transition while incidentally strengthening their competitive position vis-
à-vis other communications industries.
9/11: On the morning of September 11, 2001, planes struck the twin towers of the World
Trade Center. A variety of first responders rushed to the scene. But key groups of first
responders—police and fire personnel—were not able to communicate effectively with
each other. And even within groups, such as fire personnel, communications were widely
perceived to be inadequate. A widely publicized result was that many first responders in
the World Trade Towers weren’t able to get timely notice to evacuate the buildings
41 J.H. Snider, “Explanation of the Citizen’s Guide to the Airwaves” (New America Foundation:
Washington, D.C.; June 2003).
42 E.g., George F. Gilder, Life after Television (Knoxville, Tenn.: Whittle Direct Books, 1990); Thomas W.
Hazlett, "The U.S. Digital TV Transition: Time to Toss the Negroponte Switch," (Washington, D.C.: AEI-
Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, 2001); Bruce M. Owen, The Internet Challenge to
Television (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999); J.H. Snider, Speak Softly and Carry a Big
Stick: How Local TV Broadcasters Exert Political Power; Craig Moffett, "Cable and Satellite: Search
Versus Browse," in Bernstein Research Call (New York City: Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., 14 July 2005).
43 Halonen, Doug, “Broadcasters Vow to Fight Ferree Plan; Proposal Sets 2009 DTV Deadline,”
Broadcasting & Cable, April 19, 2004, p. 12.
Snider / Page 19
before they collapsed. Consequently, hundreds of lives were needlessly lost. The
families of the first responders took acute notice of this and the fact that first responders
had been promised part of the returned TV broadcast spectrum to solve this problem, yet
no fixed date for reallocating the TV broadcast spectrum to public safety had been set.
The public safety community mobilized behind the need to return the TV broadcast
channels to prevent another 9/11. And as orange alerts and fears of terrorist attacks
became an almost daily occurrence for several years, politicians took great heed. Nobody
wanted to be accused of causing the deaths of countless Americans because first
responders couldn’t communicate. The prevailing sentiment was captured in the widely
distributed and highly influential 9/11 Commission Report, which described in detail the
events on September 11, 2001 and called on Congress, in a list of recommendations, to
set a fixed date for the end of the digital TV transition so public safety could get its
Previous to this, many broadcasters had been confident of the so-called “granny rule,”
which somewhat hyperbolically stated that as long as one granny in a Congressional
district continued to rely on “free, over-the-air broadcast TV,” no member of Congress
would dare to shut it off. In the mid-1990s, for example, the chair and ranking members
of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee had both assured broadcasters that the
granny rule held for them and that their spectrum was thus safe.
Katrina: Katrina represented yet another vivid reminder that first responders still
couldn’t communicate with each other and that the promise of the returned TV spectrum
still hadn’t been fulfilled. In Congressional testimony and lobbying, first responders
repeatedly pointed this out to members of Congress.44
In a series of Congressional hearings that reached a climax in 2005, no member of
Congress dared to publicly come out against first responders’ need for some of the
broadcasters’ spectrum as soon as possible. Senator McCain, Chair of the Senate
Commerce Committee in 2004, led the attack:
Our nation can't wait any longer. Last month, I introduced S. 1268, the Spectrum
Availability for Emergency Response and Law Enforcement to Improve Vital
Emergency Services Act, which would provide our nation's first responders with
additional spectrum by January 1, 2009. I wish the date could've been sooner….
Mr. Chairman, I hope that we can act and act quickly on this issue. If there is
another national emergency, the first responders are unable to communicate with
each other. I think one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of this
committee and congressional oversight is the way that the National Association of
44 For examples of first responders testimony, see written statement of Chief Willis Carter, First Vice
President, Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, Hearing on Hurricane Katrina and
Communications Interoperability before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and
Transportation, September 29, 2005; and written statement of Vincent Stile, President, Association of
Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) on the Spectrum Needs of First Responders before the
House Energey and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, June 11, 2003.
Snider / Page 20
Broadcasters has continued to block this transition and free-up this transition. If
there's a national emergency before our first responders get this spectrum, they
bear a heavy burden.45
Panelist Eddie Fritts, NAB’s President, immediately responded:
This past weekend, with the Florida hurricane, local Florida television stations
kept the public informed, calm and safe. Yesterday the president of the American
Red Cross commented on our stations, and I quote: "Time and again, Americans
rely on local broadcasters to provide critical information that saves lives and
offers hope in times of need," unquote. It's valuable services like these that will be
strengthened and enhanced when the digital television transition is successfully
At a hearing held one month to the day after Katrina hit New Orleans, the Chair of the
House Commerce Committee, Joe Barton, made this opening statement:
How much progress has been made since the September 11th terrorist attacks
exposed major gaps in communications among federal, state and local
officials more than four years ago? Not much, it seems.
On September 11, 1996, five years to the day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the
Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee released a report which stated that
“unless immediate measures are taken to alleviate spectrum shortfall and promote
interoperability, public safety will not be able to adequately discharge their
obligation to protect life and property in a safe, efficient, and cost effective
manner.” And yet here we are and public safety is still grappling with inadequate
spectrum and radios that do not communicate with one another….
I have spent months working on a bill to enact a hard date for the digital television
transition so that the broadcasters will return spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band
that Congress promised to public safety in 1997. With this spectrum, first
responders across the nation could share common channels on which multiple
local, state, and federal agencies could coordinate emergency response.
We should not wait for another terrorist attack or natural disaster to remind us of
the importance of giving public safety the tools they need to do their job.47
Senator Barbara Boxer, at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the same day as the
House Commerce Committee hearing—one month after Katrina—vividly captures the
45 Comments of Senator John McCain at the hearing on the Digital Television Transition before the Senate
Commerce Committee, U.S. Senate, July 12, 2005.
46 Comments of Senator John McCain at the hearing on the Digital Television Transition before the Senate
Commerce Committee, U.S. Senate, July 12, 2005.
47 Hearing Statement of Chairman Joe Barton Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet
“Public Safety Communications from 9/11 to Katrina: Critical Public Policy Lessons” September 29, 2005
Snider / Page 21
tone of the period when politicians feared they could be run out of office if yet another
catastrophe struck without resolving the first responder communications problem:
We didn’t learn our lesson after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Nor did
we learn this lesson after September 11th. The wildfires raging in California
almost two years ago didn’t teach us, either. And now we have Hurricane
First responders to all these disasters were so challenged by the lack of
interoperable communications that hundreds of lives were unnecessarily and
Enough is enough. We don’t need any more failures.48
On February 13, 2006 President Bush signed legislation setting a fixed date for the end of
the broadcasters digital TV transition and the allocation of the 24 MHz for public safety.
This was arguably one of the worst defeats in the history of the TV broadcast lobby.
Radio broadcasters had been able to double their spectrum without giving any back as
part of their digital transition.49 But the TV broadcasters, thanks in part to the political
forces set in play by 9/11 and Katrina, were unable to do the same.
The primary policy lessons terrestrial, over-the-air TV broadcasters took from 9/11 and
Katrina was that it was important to strengthen their own competitive position. This
argument took two major forms. First, if the DTV transition needed to be speeded up to
get more spectrum into the hands of public safety, then broadcasters’ market power
would need to be expanded to make this happen. Never mind that in the Berlin region of
Germany the entire DTV transition took nine months and with few of the subsidies the
broadcasters were asking for and even fewer of the subsidies they already had.50
Specifically, the broadcasters asked for the following laws in the name of speeding the
DTV transition to enhance public safety:51
Broadcast flag rules. The broadcast flag was technology that allowed
broadcasters to prevent the copying and redistribution of their content without
their permission and thus payment. This would protect their programming from
piracy and allow them to provide more expensive programming, both economic
forces that would allow them to provide better content and thus increase the
48 Statement of Senator Barbara Boxer, Hearing on Hurricane Katrina and Communications Interoperability
before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, September 29,
49 See J.H. Snider, “The FCC’s Imminent Radio Multicasting Vote: Will it be another broadcast industry
giveaway?” March 24, 2006, available at jhsnider.net/telecompolicy under the category Docket 99-325.
50 J.H. Snider and Michael Calabrese, “Speeding the DTV Transition” (New America Foundation:
Washington, D.C., May 2004).
51 For example, see the concluding paragraphs of Testimony of David L. Donovan, President, Association
for Maximum Service Television, before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee,
September 8, 2004.
Snider / Page 22
demand for digital TV sets. But the broadcast flag would also significantly
restrict the scope of what used to be called “free TV,” one of the broadcasters’
claimed public interest obligations. As programming increasingly became time
shifted, free TV would increasingly take on the attributes of pay TV.
Multicasting must-carry rules. Broadcasters currently had the right to demand
free cable and satellite carriage for one of their DTV programming streams.
They wanted the right to demand such carriage for all of their DTV programming
streams.52 With new DTV compression technology, they could anticipate getting
as many as twenty standard definition digital TV programming streams in the
spectrum that previously could only transmit a single standard definition TV
programming stream. This additional carriage would increase the demand for
TV broadcast programming and thus the incentive for broadcasters to produce
more DTV programming, which in turn would increase the incentive for
consumers to purchase more DTV sets.
Settop Subsidies. Broadcasters wanted the government to subsidize consumers’
purchase of digital to analog converter boxes so no consumer’s TV set would lose
access to over-the-air TV programming as a result of the DTV transition. Another
consequence was that this would create more demand for their terrestrial, over-
the-air delivered programming.
Unlicensed Spectrum in the Vacant Channels. After the DTV transition was
over, there would be 49 channels allocated to TV broadcasting but the average TV
market only used 7 (large TV markets such as New York City and Washington
D.C. were assigned many more channels but even then used less than half the
total). The empty channels had historically been needed as guard bands between
analog channels but these guard bands were largely unnecessary in the digital
world. This set off a scramble for rights to use the guard bands. Many leading
high tech companies and influential public interest groups wanted to allocate the
guard bands for unlicensed service such as an enhanced WiFi service.
Broadcasters argued that such unlicensed devices could interfere with DTV
reception and thus slow down the DTV transition.53
52 For example, see Comments of Eddie Fritts, President of the National Association of Broadcasters, at the
hearing on the Digital Television Transition before the Senate Commerce Committee, U.S. Senate, July 12,
Today, some 585 television stations across the country are using DTV to split their signal into
multiple programming streams. This practice, called "multicasting", holds one of the great
promises of the digital transition, namely, more free local programming options for the public….
We have said that we would be glad to engage with the committee, both here and in the House, to
provide quantifiable public-interest obligations on these multicast channels…. And we agree with
you that local television is so important, especially when you have so much hurricanes and
tornadoes and bad weather that comes through, not just that, but on every-day local information.
And we think the best way to do it is continue the must-carry regime….
53 See Joint Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters, Association for Maximum Service
Television, and Association of Public Television Stations in the Matter of Additional Spectrum for
Snider / Page 23
Tuner Mandate. Broadcasters wanted a mandate that every TV set sold in the
United States include a terrestrial, over-the-air broadcast TV tuner. Such a
requirement, they argued, would enable “reception of news and public safety
information in times of emergency.”54 It would also, of course, boost viewership
of their programming.
To preserve and enhance their own public service, including crisis communications,
broadcasters also asked policymakers for new spectrum rights and other preferred
treatment. These included:
Digital TV Distributed Transmission System Technology. This would allow
broadcasters to transition from a broadcasting architecture with a single high
power tower to a countless array of lower power towers; that is, switch from the
traditional broadcasting architecture to a more modern cellular architecture.
Broadcasters argued, among other things, that this would allow them to provide
more robust emergency information to a larger audience.55 As an additional
benefit, broadcasters would win rights to huge amounts of unused spectrum that
could otherwise have been used for unlicensed service. Ultimately, this new
architecture of broadcasting would allow broadcasters to transition from a
broadcasting to broadband based service.56
Digital TV Translators in Rural Areas. The broadcast TV architecture in the
U.S. distinguishes between TV service in metropolitan and rural areas. There are
210 local TV markets based in metropolitan areas. Stations in these markets can
originate programming. In addition, there are about 5,000 TV translator stations
that retransmit this programming in rural areas. The Telecommunication Act of
1996 only provided a second channel for broadcasters in metropolitan areas. Now
broadcasters wanted a second channel in rural areas to provide the same type of
public service that the metropolitan TV stations could. In addition, they wanted
many new rights so they could eventually transition from broadcast to broadband
Unlicensed Devices Below 900 MHz and in the 3 GHz Band, ET Docket No. 02-380, April 17, 2003, p.
54 This position was endorsed by the FCC in its Report & Order implementing a tuner mandate. See In the
Matter of Requirement for Digital Television Receiving Capability, Report and Order, ET Docket No. 05-
24 (Nov. 8, 2005) at ¶ 25.
55 E.g., See “Broadcast,” Communications Daily, August 8, 2006. For an example of how New York City
broadcasters in particular seek to turn their 9/11 fiasco into a spectrum windfall from the Federal
Government, see Josh Wein, “Test in N.Y. Seen Aiding Spread of Distributed Transmission,”
Communications Daily, August 21, 2006.
56 See “How the broadcast industry plans to enter the wireless broadband Internet industry with another
$100 billion gift from Uncle Sam,” available at jhsnider.net/telecompolicy under the category Docket 05-
312; see also the comments and ex parte reply comments of the New America Foundation et al. in the
Matter of Digital Television Distributed Transmission System Technologies, Docket 05-312, February 6,
2006 and April 18, 2006.
57 See New America Foundation et al. Petition for Clarification or Modification in the Matter of
Amendments of Parts 73 and 74 of the Commission’s Rules to Establish Rules for Digital Low Power
Snider / Page 24
Digital Radio. As in the TV broadcast band, there was a battle over the unused
channels in the radio broadcast band. Radio broadcasters wanted to double their
existing allocation of spectrum by acquiring empty adjacent channels so they
could provide more public service. After acquiring this spectrum to transition to
high definition radio, they wanted to win rights to multicast programming on this
spectrum; that is, provide many programs where only one before was feasible.
This, too, would allow them to enhance their public service.58 Lastly, AM radio
broadcasters wanted the right to provide FM translator service within their
coverage areas so as to expand their public service, including emergency
New Standard for Digital TV Sets. The current broadcast digital TV standard
was formally adopted in 1995 but essentially finished by 1993, when the Intel
Pentium was still considered a state-of-the-art PC and the world wide web hadn’t
yet been commercialized. That TV standard is now more than a decade old and
cannot support mobile communications over cellular networks. Broadcasters
want to replace it with a new standard to fix its many deficiencies, even if that
means making obsolete much of the functionality promised to current DTV set
purchasers. Among other benefits, broadcasters argue that the new standard will
allow for more robust reception of emergency alert information.60
Satellite Radio. As we have seen, radio broadcasters sought to prevent satellite
radio from providing local, free (i.e., ad-supported) programming. They argued
that such competition would limit their ability to provide public service
Different Policy Lessons
What other policy lessons could be taken from 9/11 and Katrina? Here are a few, some
of which have already been implemented or are likely to be implemented.
Create a Platform Independent Emergency Alert System. Terrestrial broadcasting is
increasingly less important as a source of information for Americans. One of the reasons
for this decline is that it is based on an increasingly obsolete set of technologies for the
Television, Television Translator, and Television Booster Stations and to Amend Rules for Digital Class A
Television Stations, Docket No. 03-185, December 29, 2004.
58 See J.H. Snider, “The FCC’s Imminent Radio Multicasting Vote: Will it be another broadcast industry
giveaway?” March 24, 2006, available at jhsnider.net/telecompolicy under the category Docket 99-325.
59 Petition for Rulemaking of the National Association of Broadcasters to Permit
AM Radio Stations’ Use of FM Translators, submitted to the FCC on July 14, 2006.
60 Comments of National Association of Broadcasters, in the Matter of Review of the Emergency Alert
System, Docket 04-296, January 24, 2006. See footnote 11:
The ATSC DTV standard was developed originally to provide service to fixed reception devices.
More recent efforts have been targeted to develop transmission modes for reception under severe
reception conditions. For example, the latest version of the ATSC DTV standard includes a robust
mode called E-VSB that could be used to insure delivery of digital EAS information to small,
portable DTV sets during challenging reception conditions.
Snider / Page 25
delivery of both emergency and other information services. As a result, government
should move away from an emergency information system that puts broadcasting into a
class by itself and gives it special subsidies and regulatory protections.
Switch the Broadcast Band from Broadcast to Broadband Services. The government
should reallocate spectrum from broadcast services to Internet based broadband services
that are not only what consumers increasingly demand but are increasingly more
efficient, flexible, and robust for emergency information services.
Eliminate Laws that Discriminate Against Free, Local Satellite Broadcasting.
Satellites have become a highly efficient and robust mechanism for delivering local and
ad-supported as well as national, fee-based programming. Wherever markets have been
allowed to operate freely, satellite broadcasting has become a major source of “free” (ad-
supported) programming to areas no larger than many of America’s TV markets.
Accordingly, the government should legalize local, ad-supported satellite broadcast
services. It should also either grant satellite radio broadcasters the performance right or
ban it altogether. The performance right grants terrestrial but not satellite radio
broadcasters free use of prerecorded music—the major operating cost for satellite and
other radio stations. It also grants terrestrial radio broadcasters special discounted rates
when they rebroadcast their programming over the Internet. With new spot beam
satellites, it’s even more efficient for satellites to provide regional broadcasting service
than it is for terrestrial broadcasters. For example, one small satellite can provide
continent wide service to local markets whereas it has required hundreds of giant TV
towers to provide the same service terrestrially.
Bypass the Middle Man in Sending Out Government Emergency Alerts.
Traditionally, the government has used middle men such as broadcasters to get out its
emergency alerts. This basic model is now being applied to cable, satellite, and other
content providers. But another approach is to bypass the middle man entirely and
provide direct alerts to citizens. Receiving the alerts would still be voluntary, except that
in this case the citizen rather than the intermediary would make the decision whether to
receive the signal. One way to do this would be to provide e-mail alerts to both wired
and wireless devices. Many public school districts already do this to provide weather and
other alerts to parents. Another variation on this idea would be to transmit emergency
alerts via satellite signals that could be picked up anywhere in the U.S. An additional
twist on this idea that I haven’t seen anywhere would be to require that cars and homes
have a built-in receiver that could pick up this emergency alert signal. This could be
combined with a receiver to pick up satellite delivered government GPS signals, which
tell a receiver where it is located on the face of the earth with an accuracy of about ten
feet.61 This would allow for geographically targeted emergency alerts to any site in the
United States. In 2009 car manufacturers are expected to start including special
receivers for the Intelligent Transportation System. Perhaps an emergency alert receiver
should be integrated into that system.
61 This does not necessarily raise privacy concerns. GPS is a one one-way satellite to earth technology, so
only the person at the receiver, not the transmitter, would know the receiver’s location unless the receiver
chose to reply via another communications network with some type of e911 alert.
Snider / Page 26
Although this proposal for an emergency alert system may come across as a radical idea
and is not part of the current emergency alert discussion, we already have many public
safety requirements that are part of our building and car manufacturing codes. Such a
requirement could be thought of as a 21st Century analog to the mandatory smoke
detector/fire alarm building requirements first introduced in the 20th Century.
Once such a system was in place, it could be extended in many different ways. For
example, a nearby ambulance or police cruiser could activate it via a purely local
transmission to alert drivers to clear a path for them. Currently, broadcasters refuse to
allow public safety to use radio channels for such a purpose, even when public safety
only wants to transmit alerts for a few hundred feet. Another option would be for the
emergency alert to be integrated with a home or car communications system and
preprogrammed to automatically turn on to a user’s favored news channel based on the
type of alert; e.g., a national news channel for a presidential alert and a local news
channel for a mayoral alert. Another option might be for the user to program his
communications network to automatically send out an e-mail alert to loved ones notifying
them of his or her location and the nature of the alert received.
Other Industries’ Use of Crisis Communications
Although I have been hard on the broadcasting industry’s use of crisis communications
for lobbying purpose, I in no way want to suggest that other telecommunications
industries didn’t attempt, and often with some success, to use crisis communications
arguments as a pretext for lobbying agendas not necessarily in the public interest. A
striking example is the mobile satellite industry, which won free rights to as much as
twenty billion dollars worth of rights to spectrum in part by arguing that a strengthened
satellite service could provide a robust source of information in times of crisis such as
Katrina. These satellite operators may be right, but they could also have been required to
bid for their spectrum rights at auction.62 Others have also attempted to use the public
safety card with less apparent success to date. Vehicle location services in the largely
unlicensed 902-928 MHz band, for example, have attempted to win free spectrum rights
in the name of public safety that are worth billions of dollars.63
Since the origins of broadcasting, broadcasters have recognized the importance of
lobbying to their own long-term health as an industry. When major communication
crises such as 9/11 and Katrina come to shape the public agenda, broadcasters—and other
62 See Jesse Drucker, “As Satellite Firms Move to Add Cellular Services, Critics Cry Foul,” Wall Street
Journal, February 9, 2006, p. A1.
63 See various comments of Progeny LMS and Warren Havens in Progeny LMS, LLC Petition for
Rulemaking to Amend Part 90 of the Commission’s Rules Governing Location and Monitoring Service to
Provide Greater Flexibility, RM-10403. In response, IEEE 802.18 commented, September 29, 2002, that
the requests of the petitioners “represent an unabashed attempt to rewrite the long-established LMS rules…
for the purpose of advancing their own financial interests under the guise of Public Safety and Critical
Infrastructure.” For additional background, see comments of New America Foundation et al. in the Matter
of Amendments of the Commission’s Part 90 Rules in the 904-909.75 and 919.75-928 MHz Bands, Docket
No. 06-49, May 30, 2006.
Snider / Page 27
telecommunications lobbies—naturally adopt their lobbying strategies accordingly. But
this may lead policymakers to suboptimal solutions to the communications crises they are
trying to address. Whether that will happen in response to the most recent
communications crises is too early to tell, as our nation’s communications policies to deal
with such crises are very much in flux.
For example, key FCC proceedings, such as its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the
matter of Recommendations of the Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane
Katrina on Communications Networks, issued June 19, 2006, have yet to be decided.64
And the President’s Executive Order to investigate and update the country’s Public Alert
and Warning System, issued June 26, 2006,65 will most likely take at least a year to
complete. The fact that the order calls for striking the language of the “Emergency
Broadcast System” for the “Emergency Alert System” is a hopeful start.
Still, Congress and the FCC have been sending out some very disturbing signals. For
example, Congressional support for codifying the ban on local, ad-supported satellite
radio in the name of enhancing our country’s emergency communications is very
disturbing. So is the FCC’s pattern, established now in numerous proceedings, of giving
the rights to the unused TV and radio channels to incumbent broadcasters. This is
ostensibly being done so broadcasters can provide more broadcast programming,
including emergency information, in the public interest. Instead, these unused channels,
made usable by new digital technology, should be reallocated for broadband Internet
As long as the government continues to have jurisdiction over vital areas of information
policy, it is likely that political actors will continue to use communications crises as a
pretext to pursue their own long-standing information policy agendas. To the extent that
political communication scholars care about the media infrastructure that shapes political
discourse, they should keep an eye on how these communications crises may be used in
self-serving ways at the expense of democratic discourse and the larger public interest.
64 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Matter of Recommendations of the Independent Panel Reviewing
the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks, EB Docket No. 06-119, June 19, 2006.
See also the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Matter of Review of the Emergency Alert
System, FCC Docket 04-296, released November 10, 2005. A related Congressional bill is the Warning,
Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, S. 1753, introduced September 22, 2005.
65 Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/06/20060626.html.