In a New York Times op-ed piece titled "The Price of Free Airwaves," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps makes the case for compelling broadcasters to carry good-for-you programming their audiences evidently don't have the good sense to demand:
America lets radio and TV broadcasters use public airwaves worth more than half a trillion dollars for free. In return, we require that broadcasters serve the public interest: devoting at least some airtime for worthy programs that inform voters, support local arts and culture and educate our childrenâ€”in other words, that aspire to something beyond just minimizing costs and maximizing revenue.
Using the public airwaves is a privilegeâ€”a lucrative oneâ€”not a right, and I fear the F.C.C. has not done enough to stand up for the public interest. Our policies should reward broadcasters that honor their pledge to serve that interest and penalize those that don't.
In case Copps' notion of a "public interest" that is distinct from what actually interests the public was not confusing enough, here's another puzzle: If broadcasters use "the public airwaves" for free, how do we know that privilege is worth half a trillion dollars? It turns out those free airwaves are pretty expensive:
Broadcast licenses continue to be very valuable. Univision's assetsâ€”many in small marketsâ€”were sold for more than $12 billion. A single station in Sacramento, owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, went for $285 million in 2004. A station in a megamarket like New York or Los Angeles could easily fetch half a billion dollars or more.
Since the price a company pays for a station consists mostly of the broadcast license's market value, that company, pace Copps, has in fact purchased the right to use "the public airwaves." While the initial recipients of broadcast licenses enjoyed a windfall, subsequent owners do not. Why should they be subject to the special requirements that Copps says are justified by their free enjoyment of something for which they paid a lot of money?