When Thomas Hazlett gazed into the future of television in reason’s July 1982 issue, he saw both a promise and a threat. In “The Viewer Is the Loser!” Hazlett foresaw a world in which TV watchers would enjoy dozens of channels to fill every niche interest, direct satellite transmission, high-quality original programming, and even interactive capabilities. He also saw a cable TV market burdened by endless political squabbles and intrusions.
We got all of the above. Hazlett looked forward to a deregulated TV marketplace in which cable subscribers could pick among 50 channels, rather than just three. These days that figure seems unimaginatively low. Satellite broadcasters compete with local cable companies in part based on the sheer number of channels. By 2002 more than 280 cable networks were available in the United States. Cable companies typically offer access to most of these channels, along with a variety of interactive and on-demand services.
Conventional wisdom in the early 1980s held that television’s “antisophistication” resulted from commercial ownership of broadcast networks. Hazlett argued that it was instead a result of regulations that prohibited the growth of competing networks and channels. As channels proliferated, so did high-quality programming. Today original dramas produced by cable networks such as HBO and AMC are among the most critically praised products on the pop culture landscape.
But the rise of choice in cable television has not meant the end of cable TV politics. Hazlett warned that “the very opportunities that offer an explosion in consumer choice offer local authorities…a chance to snare a prime-time piece of the action.” To this day, cable operators are subject to a web of “franchise fees” designed to give local authorities regulatory power while granting implicit quasi-monopolies to cable companies.
Federal micromanagement of industry practices continues as well. As Hazlett noted, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “has territorial ‘rights’ to regulate the emerging technologies and has acted with characteristic energy and foresight in exercising those rights.” The regulators continue to meddle. Since 1990, the FCC has forced television networks to follow rules set up in the Children’s Television Act with the explicit goal of promoting education programming aimed at children. Other FCC rules still prohibit cross-ownership of TV and radio platforms in local markets. And in December, the agency passed a rule requiring cable and satellite providers to regulate the loudness of commercials.