Broadcast TV may be on the decline, but Smith asks what the nation would do without the evening news, weather alerts and live broadcasts of the World Series. Let's not forget how important those local television spots have been for political campaigns, he adds.
Smith, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), is taking that pitch to former Capitol Hill colleagues, warning that the federal government's plan to bolster wireless networks could end up darkening signals for hundreds of stations around the country. The administration says television channels should be sold to wireless companies that will build networks for a new generation of Internet-connected smartphones and tablets.
To make that work, the government promises to give broadcasters a cut of proceeds from auctions of their airwaves. The plan has the backing of wireless carriers, gadgetmakers and Internet firms.
But Smith isn't biting just yet.
"We don't think this is an either-or debate, and we aren't saying we are against voluntary auctions," Smith said. "But we want to hold harmless those who don't want to participate."
President Obama said Thursday in a speech in Michigan that the federal government plans to raise $27.8 billion from auctions, and that would include a great deal of high-end, beachfront spectrum held by television broadcasters. Those airwaves penetrate walls and trees, making it less likely that calls will get dropped or apps will fail.
Obama says the money would pay for new networks that the economy needs to leap forward with new high-tech economies. But as they stand, the nation's wireless networks aren't robust enough to support a flood of new devices hitting the market, the president and the Federal Communications Commission have warned.
"To attract the best jobs and newest industries, we've got to out-innovate, out-educate, out-build and out-hustle the rest of the world," Obama said at Northern Michigan University on Tuesday as he unveiled a plan to blanket the nation with mobile high-speed networks.
Experts say the government plan is complicated and may prove too ambitious.
Gordon Smith could be its biggest obstacle.
Harking back to his farming roots in northeast Oregon, he says spectrum is the "seed corn" of television stations. That means it's the foundation of new business plans being drawn up by stations that want viewers to watch "Jeopardy!" and "American Idol" on mobile devices from local signals. They also plan to experiment with multi-casting and say consumers who are leaving cable for Internet entertainment are supplementing their viewing habits with good old-fashioned over-the-air TV.