Electronics Lobby Throws an Elbow at Broadcasters

There’s no love lost between the consumer electronics lobby and the broadcast lobby. Just as the National Association of Broadcasters opened its annual convention in Las Vegas on Monday, the Consumer Electronics Association released a survey purportedly demonstrating that Americans want spectrum devoted to wireless Internet and not television.

The timing of the release of the CEA-commissioned survey was no accident; it was meant to rile broadcasters as they fight to hold on to spectrum. And to twist the knife a bit, the CEA released a video of man-on-the-street interviews, conducted in front of the NAB’s headquarters, with people who—and surely this was just a fortuitous coincidence—all said they get their news through various digital means and not from television.

Any poll that measured whether people would prefer “better, faster wireless Internet,” as the CEA’s survey put it, over “more local, over-the-air broadcast TV choices” would no doubt find that, in this day and age, Internet comes out the winner. (For the record, 60 percent of respondents said they wanted better Internet, compared to just 10 percent who favored more broadcast TV choices.) But just in case, the CEA and the pollster who conducted the research, Zogby, seem to have stacked the deck a bit.

Before one question, for example, the pollster told participants, “A looming issue in the United States is whether we are running out of wireless spectrum (the airwaves that allow devices such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops to connect to the Internet wirelessly).” This was the only time that the questions defined spectrum; no wonder, then, that when respondents were asked whether they wanted to “allow broadcasters to keep underutilized spectrum so they can develop more over-the-air programming for local and network TV” or “auction off underutilized spectrum to provide for more and faster wireless broadband services, which would raise a projected $33 billion that could be used to reduce the federal deficit,” 45 percent chose the latter option, while only 9 percent went for the former.

The polls that Zogby conducts online—the way it conducted this one—don’t have the best reputation for accuracy. Statistics guru Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight.com and The New York Times, once wrote that Zogby’s interactive polling “has performed abominably at every juncture.” And the Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” Carl Bialik, has called the pollster’s sponsored surveys “questionable.”

The NAB, which termed the CEA’s study “bogus,” has already fired back. 

“CEA apparently is not aware that the number of broadcast TV viewers is growing, not shrinking, as evidenced by the surge in pay TV cord-cutters,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB’s spokesman. “Moreover, every survey but for those funded by CEA finds that most Americans continue [to] rely on broadcasting as their primary source for news.”

Wharton might be guilty of doing a little misleading in his own. Unsaid in that statement is that at least some of those “cord-cutters” are likely to have made that decision thanks to the proliferation of Internet-based options for watching television.