Lets Get Rid of Broadcast TV

eLABorations: We're not getting our spectrum's worth out of broadcast television

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.