FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps plays the Ghost of Media Past on the op-ed page of yesterday's New York Times, complaining that broadcasters are failing to serve "the public interest" because they don't provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the political conventions. Copps does not buy the argument that people with a thirst for boredom can get more-complete coverage of the conventions on cable TV. "Around 35 million Americans don't get cable," he writes, "often because they cannot afford it." And besides, "Let's remember that American citizens own the public airwaves, not TV executives. We give broadcasters the right to use these airwaves for free in exchange for their agreement to broadcast in the public interest."
Will this tired old argument ever be put to rest? First of all, anyone except the original license holders did not get "the right to use these airwaves for free"; that right figures into a TV or radio station's purchase price. Second, there's no reason why the ability to broadcast at a certain frequency in a certain area could not be officially treated as a transferable property right, as opposed to a (theoretically) contingent privilege. Third, there are "public" aspects to every medium: Satellite transmissions, like broadcast signals, ride "the public airwaves"; cable and telephone lines (and therefore Internet traffic) travel along "public rights of way"; newspapers are delivered via "public roads." It's increasingly bizarre to insist that only broadcasters, whose method of reaching viewers may soon be obsolete, have a special obligation to serve "the public interest" as Michael Copps defines it. And once that rationale is stripped away, it becomes clear that control freaks like Copps simply want to dictate what people see and hear, irrespective of how the programming reaches them.
I have a suggestion: Let's figure out how many of the 35 million cable-less Americans about whom Copps is so concerned 1) actually want cable and 2) are too poor to afford the $30 a month it would take to get C-SPAN, CNN, etc. Then let's pay their cable bills with money spent on something more frivolous–say, the FCC's budget.