Busted by Copps

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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.

NEXT: Rudy in the Morning

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  1. I don’t want cable, perhaps I could get my air conditioning subsidized.

    On the front end, aren’t we (us taxpayers) already paying millions so the lame can “party” in Boston and NY?

  2. Thoreau,
    I watched the convention on PBS last night for 5 hours. They’re already covering it more heavily than any other channel I could find, including most of the cable news networks. I don’t know what this guy is whining about.

  3. I don’t have cable, my director doesn’t have cable. Our technicians, support staff (all the people paid less than us) *all* have cable TV.

    Sometimes it’s money but I frankly don’t need anymore than the 6 stations out there or a reason to watch more television…6 channeles with crap is no better than 100 with crap (tearful Swagert-like confession I do like some of the programs on calbe and have my mom tape them :).

    Our second home in the Australian outback does have a dish. So you figure out how to count me in your census. 🙂

  4. It was on the secondary PBS channel in the Twin Cities. Wall-to-wall coverage of the opening night.

  5. I don’t watch PBS; I have satellite, not cable or rabbit ears. I was asking, not whining. Nice civil dialogue, Amy.

    And thank you to the persons who kindly resolved my confusion. I am glad that PBS is indeed broadcasting coverage.

  6. Scott: I wasn’t accusing you of whining, I was accusing Copps of whining.

  7. Shannon,

    I don’t think you’re up-to-date with spectra technology. There’s is no reason to have anyone, including the gubmint, own bandwidth. FHSS (frequency hopping spread-spectrum) radios leave spectra as an open frontier. With FHSS, the only thing the FCC needs to do is to enforce transmit power limits and frequency dwell-time. No content monitoring, no licensing, no lawyers.

    Selling bandwidth will introduce a property rights
    nightmare. With propriety spectra allocation, if your new gazebo interferes with Clear Channel’s radio path to your neighbor’s TV get ready for a law suit. Who will own the 15 feet of ‘ether’ above your lawn ? Whoever has the best lawyer, that’s who. I think it’s best to have no one own it.

  8. My sincere apologies to Amy.

  9. You pay tolls on roads and the spectrum is licensed for billions of dollars to satellite companies that wish to use it for the dissemination of their service. This is not a proper analogy to the use of public airwaves for local broadcasting.

  10. 1) I want several cable channels.
    2) The lower end (i.e. the lowest price for anything beyond local channels) is $36.95. Yes, that’s the minimum in this market. Most folks I know pay more. Lots more.
    3) I can’t afford cable. I bought a $100 antenna 4 years ago, put it on my roof, and make do as best I can.

    Cable television is a huge scam. Approximately 67 channels I don’t want, 9 that I do, but I get to pay for ’em all thanks to a government-granted monopoly.

    To the cable company, 3 magic words: A LA CARTE. (You can even impose a $14/mo minimum on me… if I get to choose the channels.)

  11. “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,”

    You’re correct that spectrum could be allocated using the free market but at this date it is not. Nobody every bought spectrum from the government. Broadcasting licenses may change private hands but they do not do so in a free market manner. Who can and cannot buy a license is strongly regulated by the government. These restrictions, which function to restrict entry and competition, are also factored in the current price.

    As long as spectrum is public property and the government tightly controls who has access to it the people have a say in how this resources can be used by private concerns. Under present conditions, removing all restrictions on broadcasters really just means giving a few elite interest the stamp of government approval and a government protected monopoly.

    I say auction off the spectrum first without any political strings attached then remove the restrictions.

  12. As a classical liberal, I share Mr. Sullums’s distaste for Mr. Copps’s (hey, Mom, look at all the apostrophes!) desire to have government dictate what shall be broadcast, but as a Georgist, I disagree with his view that broadcasting licenses should be private property without corresponding obligations.

    These licenses represent the privilege of using a limited resource which the broadcasters did not create, so let us charge them money for the privilege of using the spectrum (and reduce other taxes). That will cut the ground away from busybodies like Mr. Copps, and let spectrum go to those who may be presumed to best serve the public interst, viz., those whose use of the spectrum makes them enough money to pay the license-rent and still be profitable.

    Technological innovations in spectrum-sharingmay change the details, but do not, IMHO, change the principle.

  13. I would like to open the bidding for blue, 1$.

  14. Um… where’s PBS? At least, the prime time coverage – without the running “analysis.”

  15. Let’s not forget that this is the SAME Michael Copps who wants to sanitize the airwaves.

  16. Another reason the networks show so little of the conventions: With the FCC cracking down on “indecency” the Big Three have been curtailing their unpredictable live event coverage across the board. Even the outdoor crowd shots on the Today SHow are kept at a minumum for fear of an “incident.”
    If NBC had run the portion of the DNC when the lack of balloons triggered an obscenity to be shouted up in the rafters, would they have been fined?

  17. “Under present conditions, removing all restrictions on broadcasters really just means giving a few elite interest the stamp of government approval and a government protected monopoly.”

    But under the present, regulated conditions, elite interest groups can use the FCC to impose their standards of “decency” on the public. There is ultimately no such thing as the “public interest,” only the interests of factions and regulators. Copps doesn’t want to give the public what it wants–he wants to tell the public what they want.

  18. Good point on PBS. Why not make them run it?

    As to Jacob Sullum’s idea for subsidized cable. Normally I’d be against it, but if the price tag came out of the FCC budget I suppose I could look the other way…

  19. If you programming even more bland than it is now (if such a thing is possible), then proceed with the idea to Federally subisidize cable TV. Otherwise, let’s just strengthen the economy and go about the business of creating better paying jobs. I agree, though, that PBS should be forced to carry the conventions. The cable channels can then concentrate on analysis, since their hosts never shut up anyway.

  20. Nicholas Rosen,

    You’re not a Georgist by any chance, are you?

  21. Kevin Carson,

    Yes, I am a Georgist.

    For those who don’t know, Henry George was a 19th century American economist who advicated a single tax on teh value of land, and the abolition of all taxes on labor and capital (inluding tariffs, sales taxes, etc.). Henry George’s books on economics were best sellers, and the single taxers were a mass movement for a while, although you don’t read much about this in the standard history or economics texts.

  22. I know it’s a ‘late to the party’ comment, but in response to Scott Reynolds’ comment about a $14/month minimum charge for cable: How about a $30 per month minimum? Would that be ok? Do we really know what the price structures for the cable companies are? Or are we going to regulate that, and by extension regulate the prices that the cable companies must pay to the channel owners to rebroadcast, since regulating just the cable company will end up putting them out of business? What about channel bundling to the cable companies, where the channel owner says ‘you can’t have this channel unless you take this other one (that you don’t really want) too’. Imposing pricing and sales structures on the cable companies alone really won’t change that much, imo.

    I agree about the ‘government granted monopoly’, but that’s really not the only problem. There is a large amount of collusion about territory in the cable industry. I know of towns that have tried to bring in other companies, even with exclusive monopolies in the towns, and they wouldn’t do it, because it was in another company’s ‘territory’ (the company the town wanted to dump). But more regulation about pricing, even to force an ‘a la carte’ system, sure isn’t a free market solution at all.

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