Jerry Fritz, the Self-Described ‘Forrest Gump’ of the Industry, Prepares For Retirement

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For more than a half century, Jerry Fritz has been at some of the most momentous turning points in the broadcast and telecommunications industries—much as the fictional character Forrest Gump was an up-close part of and witness to major events in U.S. history.

As a broadcaster, lawyer, FCC Chairman chief of staff and most recently a key player at the vanguard of NextGen TV during his tenure with ONE Media, Fritz has witnessed and influenced a lot. 

On July 1, he will say farewell July 1 to ONE Media and the industry. Reflecting on his career, Fritz likens himself to Gump. But to be sure, the parallel is only circumstantial—not intellectual.

In this interview, Fritz offers his insights on the progress of NextGen TV, the importance of an ATSC 1 shutoff, the future of UHF spectrum auctions, how the regulatory landscape has changed over his career and what he will do in retirement.

(An edited transcript.)

TV Tech: During your 56-year career in the broadcast industry, you’ve held many roles. I want to start off with NextGen TV. At ONE Media you have worked to make NextGen TV a reality. As you retire, what’s your assessment of where the rollout is today and the challenges facing broadcasters? 

Jerry Fritz: I’m heartened by the rollout. This is a hockey stick acceptance when you compare it to other transmission systems that have rolled out.

Our company alone is already launched in 46 markets. We’re [as an industry] at over 70% of the country. We have patent pools formed so that manufacturers can have a one- stop shop to get their technology into devices. 

So, I’m very heartened—not just domestically, but internationally as well. We not only got it approved at the FCC, but now we’ve got it approved at the ITU [International Telecommunications Union] as one of the four international standards. It’s obviously here in the U.S. and in Korea, but now we’re looking for Canada, Mexico, Brazil and India. So, we’re quite heartened at the rollout.

TVT: What are your thoughts about bringing ATSC 1.0 to a close? How and when will it happen?

JF: The sooner the better, and I’m directing that comment to the government. We need to have a rapid termination of ATSC 1 because all of the capabilities of ATSC 3.0 are handcuffed due to this requirement of simulcasting. 

We’re using all of this valuable capacity, where we could be doing not just video, but all of the data operations. I will tell you that if broadcasters are successful in this BPS [Broadcast Positioning System], being the supplement to GPS [Global Positioning System], that’s going to put enormous pressure on the government to get all broadcasters—not just some in these 70 [existing ATSC 3.0] markets we’re in but all broadcasters in all markets—to convert so we can have this redundant and complementary system to GPS.

It’s a national security issue, and that should really give the government pause to move forward on the deployment of 3.0. It’s so much more advantageous than what we have today. It’s remarkable that we’re still hamstrung.

TVT: Has there been any movement on the part of the government when it comes to evaluating BPS as a GPS complement? 

JF: I don’t know about any official decision, but we in the broadcast industry are making plans to do this testing. We have a robust test to demonstrate to the Transportation Department [the agency charged with finding a complement to GPS] the value of broadcasting as this supplement. So, I think we’re moving full steam ahead, and hopefully they will because they want to move quickly, and we can move quickly. We have an infrastructure that’s already in place.

TVT: FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr suggested earlier this month at the ATSC annual meeting in Washington, D.C., that another spectrum auction is around the corner. What are your thoughts about that? And how does the industry pursue avoiding a succession of UHF spectrum auctions going forward?

JF: That ties right back to what we were just talking about as relates to BPS. If the Defense Department and the Transportation Department are looking for a viable alternative and substitute and supplement to the satellite-based geo positioning system we have today, then broadcasting is it.

If you do that with broadcasting, you’re not going to be taking away broadcast spectrum. It is going to be locked in. It is a national security imperative, and I believe that if that comes to pass, there will be no more spectrum auctions.

TVT: How important is it to broadcasters to augment their existing business with revenue from new 3.0-enabled services such as datacasting?

JF: The flexible use of broadcast spectrum is absolutely crucial. The broadcast spectrum we’ve been licensed should not be siloed into just a television service. 

There are lots of television services out there. Lots of distribution from cable to satellite to Internet. A lot of people are competing for eyeballs.

If broadcasters want to remain in that business—and we do—no one has ever invented a better way to reach a mass audience than broadcast television, bar none. No one’s even close. If we’re going to continue that business, and it’s a very expensive business, we need supplemental income.

Retrans is going to cap out—whether that’s from satellite, cable, and hopefully virtual MVPDs as well. We need to do more than just television. The datacasting businesses is crucial. As you know, Sinclair [ONE Media’s parent company] just launched Broadspan as the first foray into this. I believe truly that within a decade and a half, broadcasters can make more money from renting their spectrum—renting their bits—than they make today from advertising. 

TVT: Does the government generating revenue from FCC spectrum sales skew the larger mission of the agency when it comes to advancing the public interest?

JF: In the 90 years that the FCC has been in existence, there have been, I think, 33 chairs. I’ve known 21 of those chairs. I’ve worked with seven. I’ve worked for four of those chairs, and I’ve seen this enormous swing of the pendulum of what the public interest means—from Newton Minow talking about the public interest and having a government control over the content that is seen, and that was his vision of the public interest, which continues today for many people, to the swing back under Mark Fowler.

He pursued marketplace regulation, which really lets the marketplace determine what the public interest is. I’ve seen this swing, and it goes back and forth at the commission depending on who’s the chair. And the Congress has different ideas of what the public interest is. 

Recognize that the entire notion of the government owning the spectrum dates back to Herbert Hoover trying to say that it is a good idea for the government to control this because he couldn’t control the newspapers.

But courts in 1924 were in the process of allocating private property rights to broadcast channels, using the idea of trespass. So, there’s nothing inherent that says the government has to own these things.

The government, the FCC, has for many years had the silo approach to regulation based on content. The broadcasters have content. The common carriers have different types of public interest.

But there’s no reason it has to be allocated that way. You could get rid of the silos. You could get rid of the Media Bureau and merge it into what is originally the original Wireless Transmission System, which is broadcasting.

Broadcasting can merge into the Wireless Bureau, and you could have the flexible use of broadcasting channels regulated in a different way and spin off the 15 or so content regulations that the FCC imposes specifically on broadcasting, and Congress has imposed on broadcasting. You could do that.

You could have a much more flexible approach to licensing of spectrum in the public interest, so that the public gets the benefit of all of the things that spectrum can do, not just television.

TVT: Isn’t spectrum scarcity the fundamental reason the government can avoid being at odds with the First Amendment in regard to regulating TV and radio? They aren’t making any more of it.

JF: There’s nothing available in the universe on an unlimited basis. Everything is scarce. Land in Manhattan is scarce. If you’re going to put up a billboard in Manhattan, does that give the government the right to say what goes on that billboard? 

There’s really nothing available in limitless quantities. The scarcity principle was written in the Red Lion decision in 1969. The government made it a question of law as opposed to a question of fact.

If you take a look at the number of voices that are out there today via the Internet and the competition that broadcasters face from the from big tech, tell me where the scarcity is. There’s no scarcity of viewpoints.

It’s just this notion that the government needs to own spectrum because it’s scarce. Well, timber in the United States is scarce. That doesn’t mean we get to control the newspapers.

TVT: What do you plan to do in retirement?

JF: I don’t know the answer to that question. I’ve been thinking about it long and hard. I’ll continue to teach. I love teaching and the broadcasting business.

I feel sort of like Forrest Gump in my career, having been in the background of all of these big ticket items that went on in the last 56 years. 

My first job in television was at WMAQ, the NBC-owned station in Chicago in 1968. I remember walking out of the studio during a break and taking a deep breath, and there was sort of a pungent aroma in the air. You know what it was? It was the tear gas wafting over from Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention. And here we are going full circle with the Democrats going back to Chicago this year.

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate, you know. I was there when cellular was approved in 1981 with Fowler. We deregulated long-distance rates and implemented the AT&T divestiture. I was part of the group that finally got rid of the hated Fairness Doctrine, along with the personal attack rule and the political editorializing rule.

We changed broadcast ownership. It used to be you could only own seven AM, seven FM and seven television stations. Only five could be in the top 50 markets, which is crazy.

So, we went from a station to an eyeball test. We got rid of the Top 50 policy; we got rid of the regional concentration of control rule, and we wanted to get rid of the local rules. The Commission’s tried, but we’re stuck in this rinse and repeat cycle in the courts to try to change the ownership rules.

I was there for the analog-to-digital transition when I was on the NAB Board. Did the first retransmission consent contracts and was involved in creating News Channel 8 and the first local cable news channel and was part of the team that formed Politico.

So, I’ve been [like] Forrest Gump [all over this industry]…Now I’m kicking back, and saying, “Well, I’ll probably do some writing. I’ll probably do some teaching, and I want to give up the list of to dos.”

I just read a book called “Table for Two,” and the author, Amor Towles, had a great quote in there that “lists are the foot soldiers of tyranny.” So, I’m giving up lists.

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