What’s wrong with the FCC?

January 23rd, 2007

The FCC isn’t going anywhere, but Slate’s Jack Shafer is beating the drum for a private-property approach to spectrum management in place of government regulators. While spectrum is, indeed, no longer so scarce a resource, thanks to technological innovations, I’m not ready to bid farewell to the commission. The FCC is far from perfect, but its career experts do a reasonable job of directing traffic and holding chaos at bay.

The FCC’s most prominent shortcoming, noted by Shafer and common to nearly any entrenched bureaucracy, is its inability to respond to the future.

On the political side, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is still out promoting multicast must-carry, a scheme that would give even more cable channel slots to local broadcasters. Why is he doing this? The agenda has almost nothing to do with spectrum allocation, but probably more than a little to do with the allocation of political spoils in Washington, where the interests of broadcasters are well represented. One could argue that Martin, who maintains that multicast must-carry would help the digital TV transition, is merely promoting broadcasting as a going concern. But why should the FCC be in the promotion business? Why should the federal government stack the decks in favor of a particular form of video distribution?

Network TV shows are increasingly available via the web, video-on-demand and other platforms, chipping away at the local-affiliate paradigm that dates to the 1940s. What Martin should do is open a national dialogue concerning local TV broadcasting’s slow slide toward irrelevance, which appears to be picking up speed. The goal should not be the preservation of local broadcasting in its current form forever. The FCC should not prop up an aging business model that may no longer make sense or serve the public interest.

Locally-produced video programming, especially news, can serve a public purpose, granted. But why should the owners of giant broadcasting towers continue to enjoy preferred access to the local video market? The scarcity argument doesn’t work anymore. You and your neighbors can produce your own video and upload it to YouTube, Revver or your very own web site. Citizen video still lacks net neutrality protections, but the FCC and Congress continue to protect dominant broadcasters through must-carry rules.

• Links: Slate, Broadcasting & Cable

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