HD disputes: Sign of a bigger problem

February 13th, 2007

Local stations, aware of the increasing value of their HDTV programming, are withholding their HD signals from cable systems in some markets. Phillip Swann thinks the FCC should step in to settle such disputes between stations and cable or satellite companies:

If it doesn’t, high-def set sales will begin to decline and the nation’s plan to switch to Digital TV signals on February 17, 2009 could be imperiled.

Give me a break. The federal government’s job is not to sell high-priced TV sets. Moreover, in focusing on HD signals, he’s missing the point. There isn’t one little thing that’s broken about local carriage disputes. The whole system is broken.

Television station owners are free to demand payments (or other consideration) for carriage of their analog programming, under a set of rules known as retransmission consent. An ownership group with sufficient leverage will want such payments, and demand for high-definition programming increases their leverage. As I’ve long noted, the rules most directly protect stations, not viewers.

But let’s step back from the present disputes and ask a more fundamental question: Why should owning a broadcast tower be the key to controlling prime channel slots on a local cable system? Please don’t say, “Because we’ve always done it that way”—I’m not interested in lazy answers, thank you. The original intent, you’ll recall, was to promote local programming. Local television programming was supposed to be essential to the functioning of a vibrant democracy, informing the citizenry, all that kind of stuff, back in the day. (It was, I’m totally serious!) Decades ago, when subscription television was in its infancy, few sources of locally produced content were available, and producing it was expensive. Protecting the privileged role of the stations that license the public airwaves made a kind of sense.

Today, however, you and I and the neighbors can all produce and distribute content—a very fine place to do that is the internet, incidentally—with a minimal investment. If we want local content on cable and satellite systems, why not set aside a certain number of channel slots and let broadcasters compete with citizens, public access providers, local newspapers and others for those channels.

If what people are worried about is network programming, I don’t understand their concern. If the producers of network programming have a valuable product, cable and satellite systems (and, of course, their customers) will pay for it. Network programming doesn’t have to be distributed through an antiquated system of local affiliates—in fact, major networks are already distributing their shows directly to viewers through the internet and other platforms.

If you don’t want to pay for the programming on local channels, then yank that cable out from the back of your set and dust off your old antenna. News flash: HD programming is available for free, right over the air! If we’re going to continue devoting very valuable broadcast spectrum to local television stations, somebody should probably watch the actual broadcasts. If we stop forcing subscription TV services to carry local stations, broadcasters might even offer more and better programming on the additional channels granted to them through the switch to digital television. Across the Atlantic, free digital TV is already giving British pay-TV services a run for their money.

• Link: TV Predictions


  1. hd antenna geek says:

    What’s the point of watching the local channels on cables, if they are broadcasted for FREE over the air? Moreover, the quality is nothing to compare. Far better with OTA broadcasts ….

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