Lets Get Rid of Broadcast TV

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2002-07-24

Lets Get Rid of Broadcast TV

The electromagnetic spectrum is one of our most important and valuable natural resources. However, until wireless technologies and regulatory schemes can evolve to find places for each of us to transmit and receive freely across the airwaves, the spectrum will remain an awfully scarce resource as well.

As a result, were faced with a situation in which proponents of useful—or at least interesting—technologies such as 802.11b-based wireless networking, satellite radio services and newfangled light bulbs must squabble over interference issues. This scarcity also leads wireless data network providers to pay so much at auction for chunks of spectrum that, in an attempt to quickly recoup their costs, these carriers end up charging so much for their services that wireless data doesnt get a fair chance to take off.

All the while, a fat swath of spectrum lies set aside for an antiquated, content-poor technology that exists to provide entertainment for a rapidly shrinking portion of the populace, and profit for a quickly dwindling number of license owners.

That technology is broadcast television. Although theres big money being made—$36 billion of advertising revenue in 2001, according to the Television Advertising Bureau—the US government provides broadcasters with cost-free and interference-protected access to the spectrum over which they operate. In exchange, what does the average American get out of the deal?

We get free television. Well, its free as long as you dont count the televisions we buy or the antenna equipment we require to wring a clear signal out of the air, or the commercials we watch. The idea of free TV also ignores our opportunity costs—what else could we have streaming through our airwaves instead of television?

So lets look at what were paying for with free TV—heres whats scheduled for today on my local CBS affiliate: 5.5 hours of local news, 1 hour of national news, 4 hours of newsmagazine programming, 6.5 hours of talk shows, 3.5 hours of game shows, 3.5 hours of daytime soap operas, and a half hour of paid programming. I have access to about 15 other broadcast channels as well, each offering roughly the same sort of programming.

Id call myself an avid (perhaps too avid) television viewer, but I probably wont watch a minute of this programming. Much of it runs while Im at work or asleep; none of the entertainment programs appeal to me; and for news, I prefer radio and the Internet.

Even if I were to watch something like "Big Brother 3" or "Rosie ODonnell" (FYI: Rosies a repeat today), I wouldnt be watching it over broadcast TV. Its been about 10 years since Ive regularly gotten my television over the airwaves—I subscribed to cable TV for years, and I recently switched to satellite.

For viewing options, broadcast cant touch cable or satellite, and lots of programs that are important to me, such as Celtics games and "Star Trek" reruns, arent available on broadcast TV. (As for "Knight Rider" reruns, I cant find them on satellite, cable or broadcast, but that burning issue will have to wait for another column.)

Im not alone in my preference for broadcast alternatives, either: upwards of 70 percent of Americans now get their TV through cable or satellite. As for my dissatisfaction with broadcast television programming, theres no end to the complaints voiced over the sort of content crossing our airwaves—too much violence and sex, not enough childrens programming, and the dark specter of paid political advertising jump immediately to mind.

Advocates for forcing broadcast TV stations to change their programming policies tend to craft their arguments around the principle that TV spectrum is a public good, and as a result, TV spectrum must be allotted to optimally serve the public good.

Theyre right, but rather than involve ourselves any further in the tricky business of regulating content, why dont we get rid of broadcast television all together?

Back when television was getting started, the current scheme of licensing bands of spectrum to television broadcasters made a lot of sense. Sure, the television system was extremely limited in that it allowed only a handful of parties (the licensed TV stations) in a given area to make use of or profit from a public good, but at the time, what else were we going to do with those airwaves?

What if there were a different sort of network, one across which individuals were free to pursue the sorts of content they chose, or could just as easily become a content provider themselves? An Internet, if you will ...

Honestly, I think that just about any other use for the spectrum thats now set aside for broadcast television would be a big improvement, but those airwaves could perhaps best be used to provide wireless, last-mile broadband Internet connectivity for as many American homes and businesses as possible. Give people fat Internet pipes, and let them watch or read or communicate how they see fit.

Thanks to cable and satellite, your favorite TV shows and sporting events wouldnt be going anywhere. In fact, theyre leaving broadcast television already. I cited Celtics games as a cable and satellite-only commodity, but starting next season, the NBA Conference Finals will also be available only over cable and satellite—most of the preceding playoff games are already unavailable over broadcast.

What About Digital TV

?"> What About Digital TV?

Im glad you asked. I mentioned above that broadcast television utilizes antiquated technology. No ones disputing this, and as you may have heard, the broadcast industry, the FCC and the consumer electronics industry has come up with a plan to fix that.

Digital TV, or DTV, is slated to replace completely our current analog television system by 2007. The FCC has even been kind enough to give broadcasters additional free spectrum in which to simulcast their programming in digital and analog while we all buy new televisions or set-top boxes to receive 2007s all-digital transmissions.

DTV was initially intended to provide for enough compression to fit high-resolution, surround-sound TV programming (HDTV) into the space in which TV stations currently broadcast. However, broadcasters realized they could use digital compression to broadcast four separate channels in that same space instead of broadcasting in HDTV.

The FCC has chosen not to require stations to broadcast in HDTV, so it looks as though, come 2007, the same small group of spectrum freeloaders will see their spectrum fiefdoms quadruple in capacity. These additional channels are likely to carry pay-per-view programming and other for-profit services. As a result, the owners of those swaths of spectrum, the American public, are unlikely to experience a similar quadrupling of the value of their spectrum "investments."

I cant imagine how watching "Jerry Springer" or "Guiding Light" over HDTV would do anything to augment my viewing experience, but if this or any other disruptive video content technology is ever to take off, what better platform from which to launch than the Internet, where anyone can put their wares on display, and anyone so inclined to sample them may do so?

Dont Trust Your Cable

Company?"> Dont Trust Your Cable Company?

I dont, either—cable companies are merging at least as quickly as broadcast stations are, and our two major satellite providers, Dish Network and Direct TV, are seeking permission to merge. The possibility of entrusting our video content distribution system to even fewer players than under broadcast would be counterproductive.

Id like to think that Internet technologies could evolve enough over the next several years to serve our video content needs, and do so with a sort of focus on local communities and individual tastes that is not currently possible with broadcast.

Also, its likely that in the absence of broadcast television, wed see more satellite providers pop up, some perhaps with a regional focus. The U.S. government could even get involved, and auction off relatively inexpensive space for "free TV" channels.

Its not as crazy as it sounds. My current satellite provider, Dish Network, streams down somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 channels from just two satellites. The government maintains 24 satellites for its freely usable Global Positioning System.

Its your spectrum. How do you want to see it used? Drop me a line at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.

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