Utterly Meaningless » Blog Archive » OT: Selling the Public Interest Short
  • OT: Selling the Public Interest Short

    Filed at 1:44 pm under by dcobranchi

    Michael Copps, a Democratic commissioner on the FCC, is foaming at the mouth over the lack of network television coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions:

    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. They earn huge profits using this public resource. During this campaign season broadcasters will receive nearly $1.5 billion from political advertising.

    What do we get in return for granting TV stations free use of our airwaves? Unfortunately, when it comes to coverage of issues important to our nation, the answer is less and less. Coverage of the 2000 presidential election on the network evening news dropped by a third compared to reporting on the 1996 election. During the last election cycle we heard directly from presidential candidates for an average of 9 seconds a night on the news. Local races? Forget it. In 2002 – the most recent midterm elections – more than half of local newscasts contained no campaign coverage at all. Local coverage has diminished to the point that campaign ads outnumber campaign stories by four to one. What coverage there is focuses inordinately on polls and handicapping the horse race.

    Let’s get one thing clear: The “public” does not own the airwaves. Property can be bought and sold. So if I, as a member of the public, own the airwaves, why can’t I sell my share to the networks. I’d be happy to do so. I don’t need the spectrum and I could use the cash.

    Nor are television stations profiting from the “free use” of the airwaves. This is akin to arguing a person’s house is profiting from the “free use” of the underlying land. The broadcast spectrum has no intrinsic value. Only when businesses develop that spectrum—at an enormous cost—can the “public” airwaves make any money at all, to say nothing of a profit. Does anyone really want to find out what would happen if the government had tried to develop the entire spectrum itself? It would probably look like the government-run schools : Every channel would air identical, “multicultural” programming designed to offend no Washington interest group. Men like Copps would dictate virtually all programming content—a position I doubt he would turn down.

    Furthermore, Copps never asks if the public really wants more campaign coverage. When networks and local stations choose not to air political programming, it’s because they believe there’s other programming more people are likely to watch. Copps’ message, however, is that the public should be forced to watch programming that he deems is in the “public interest.” I would submit the networks, while hardly infallible in their programming decisions (seriously, “Two and a Half Men”?), they are a better judge of what the public prefers to see than a career government bureaucrat.

    And why should the two major-party political conventions get free rides on the networks? The Democrats and Republicans already receive millions in taxpayer dollars—thanks to campaign finance legislation—to stage their conventions. The more the Democrats and Republicans are subsidized, the harder it becomes for third parties to enter the market. Put another way, Copps is demanding the networks air free advertising for Ford and GM, thereby putting Chrysler at a competitive disadvantage.

    4 Responses to “OT: Selling the Public Interest Short”

    Comment by
    August 30th, 2004
    at 2:28 pm

    I think the networks ARE doing a public service, by not broadcasting the conventions. The real question is why are the taxpayers picking up the tab for these events? They serve no public use anymore, they are glorified campaign rallies.

    Comment by
    Skip Oliva
    August 30th, 2004
    at 3:21 pm

    FYI, in 1992, each party received about $11 million for their conventions from the federal fund. I don’t know what it is for this year, but I assume it’s a higher figure.

    Comment by
    Eric Holcombe
    August 31st, 2004
    at 7:56 am

    Well, I’ve been cable-free for about seven years, so no convention for me. I was traveling during the Democratic convention and saw gavel to gavel coverage every night on all the networks.

    Last night, no Republican convention anywhere. PBS was ‘there’ but well, you know. Heck even Monday Night Football came on an hour early……wonder why?

    Comment by
    Ted Harder
    August 31st, 2004
    at 12:21 pm

    I went to see some of the RNC last night on my local TV stations. I found that instead I had my pick of two sit-coms I did not recognize, fear factor (couples), and Seventh Heaven.

    Now how can we justify not broadcasting the conventions when those are our alternatives.