Stop the Great Spectrum Giveaway

Rupert Murdoch recently announced his Fox television network, now the largest holder of TV broadcast outlets, would offer free airtime to the major presidential candidates. President Clinton and Dole would get 10 one-minute candidate statements in the weeks just before the election. The other networks have followed with similar proposals. Murdoch decried the fact that candidates have to beg for millions of dollars to buy TV commercials. "Money corrupts the political system, from top to bottom," Murdoch said. "It corrodes our democracy. ... It is a cancer in our system which we must tackle." In a major reversal in July the four major TV networks agreed for the first time to broadcast a specific amount of educational children's programming over the publicly-owned airwaves -- three hours per week. For twenty-five years, the networks resisted a ratings system for violence and sexual content in their programming. Then, last January, the top network executives had a summit with President Clinton in which they pledged to institute a rating system to warn parents of programming that contains objectionable material. Have the broadcasters had an epiphany? Are network chiefs suddenly filled with a desire to do good with the bottom line reduced to an afterthought? Are broadcast licensees suddenly reborn as ideal corporate citizens? Hardly. The broadcasters are behaving like a child who wants a cookie -- except the broadcasters want a multi-billion dollar cookie. The current television license holders want the government to give them control of a new, invaluable chunk of broadcasting spectrum. With this new spectrum, each licensee will be able to air six TV channels instead of the current one and possibly even pager and other wireless telecommunications services. The new broadcast channels could be pay-TV, around the clock info-mercials, or just more of the same. You're going to have to buy a new TV to pick up the new signal. With a spectrum giveaway, the administration also benefits. Clinton gets the backing of many of the broadcasters and reaps the political benefit of having addressed violence on TV, gotten more time for kids' programming -- and he gets some free TV time for himself too.The Federal Communications Commission Chair Reed Hundt seems content with merely nudging the broadcasters to engage in "voluntary ethical behavior" to them to provide five percent public interest time, like TV for kids. He recently remarked to the New York Times that "I probably should be embarrassed for asking so little in return for the public's property." Yes, he should. Bob Dole has denounced the prospect of handing the new spectrum over to the incumbent broadcasters as "the biggest giveaway of the century." Indeed, while the government is taking benefits away from the poor on welfare, it is giving an incredible gift to some of the riches entities in the country. Instead, Dole proposes an auction of the new spectrum. Recent auctions of much smaller slivers of the spectrum have raised $15 billion. Estimates for this piece of prime spectrum real estate vary from $11 billion to $100 billion. However, auctioning off the spectrum may mean transferring actual ownership of the airwaves to the broadcasters and the public would have to compensate the broadcasters if it wanted the spectrum back. And while some of the monies raised from an auction could be used for a public media trust fund to wire schools and libraries and fund independent producers, actual control of the airwaves could be more firmly entrenched in private hands. An auction would not allow truly fresh voices on the airwaves. The alternative to a giveaway or an auction would be to allocate control of some of the airwaves to various non-commercial voices: labor, religious, educational, civic, environmental groups could join commercial broadcasters in putting out information. This would add to a diverse media culture. Hardly anyone is happy with the job the current broadcasters are doing. Why give them six times as much capacity? And why not give others a voice? But it looks as though the current broadcasters are going to get the new spectrum all to themselves for virtually nothing. A proposal by Rep. Barney Frank to pass legislation and hold serious hearings (as the Congressional leadership said it would do last January) on the spectrum issue was defeated 408 to 16 on July 24 -- a tribute to the hold the broadcasters have over Washington. Both Gingrich and the Clinton administration are urging the FCC to just hand over the spectrum to the broadcasters. The law requires that broadcasters use their license in the "public interest." That is a joke. The license to broadcast commercials has been a license to print money -- it's as though the public gave newspapers free paper and ink. Now is the time to asses s how content we are with the performance of the current broadcasters of the last half century -- and last-minute conversions by the broadcasters should not cloud our view.

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