* cable TV & Free speech
Topics: FreeSpeech, Regulation
29 Jun 1994
Monday the Supreme Court ordered a set-aside of a ruling forcing cable
TV companies to carry local stations. The new standard is that the
local broadcasters must show an economic necessity to continue being
carried. This decision was reached on First Amendment grounds instead
of something more narrow.
For being a First Amendment case, it's unacceptable that any content
restrictions are left in place. It's a curious and tortured road that
has led us from the original conception of the airwaves as public
property, to the government controlling their content, to the
government controlling the content of things that could have been
broadcast but are not (and touch nothing public except for the trivial
matter of cable easement(*)). Every step in this is a mistake. With a
proper understanding of property, the airwaves are not public property
(in the sense that air is). Even if they were public property the best
thing to be done with them is to sell/give them to the person who can
extract the most utility for the public from them, i.e. whoever is
willing to pay the most. Even if you don't buy that, it has nothing to
do with cable TV. I'm going to run a VCR cable from my bedroom to your
living room (next door) and charge $50/month for you to watch what I
do. The government should have no say in that whatsoever. Cable TV is
In Houston, Turner has to carry KRTW, a home shopping station, instead
of something people want to see. There are multiple ironies here. The
first is that the test the Supreme Court proposed is economic
necessity. The very nature of the process creates marginal stations
which will of course fail if it weren't for the huge subsidy of having
someone broadcast their signal further and clearer than they could
afford. I put some bullshit UHF nonsense and claim a slice of some
very expensive bandwidth. So, yes, stations will be able to show
economic necessity. But that very fact that they can show it means
they shouldn't be on the air in the first place!
The second irony is that the UHF ghetto exists only because of more
stupid FCC regulations, that reserve all of those frequencies for the
'public good'. People are crying for cellular phone, cellular modem,
remote control, etc. bandwidth and it's being sucked up UHF nonsense
(not to mention PBS). If bandwidth were property, this inefficiency
would never be tolerated. We wouldn't ever have to worry about KRTW
forcing its way onto the cable.
Clinton, back on his old track, after NAFTA, of being 100% wrong, says
that the current law protects diversity. In other words, seeing the
same station in two ways instead of seeing more stations protects
diversity (or at least instead of seeing a station you would prefer).
I find it all very bizarre too that congress is worried about people
getting acceses to move TV at cheaper rates. In between reports of
cratering educational achievement often blamed on TV (in congressional
reports anyway), they are busy trying to make sure that every family
has cheap access to all the channels that come along.
I suppose the more general theme is punishment of invention. If you
invent something useful, we'll confiscate it for the public good.
Again, if I run a wire to your house and put some bits on it (that
don't violate copyright laws), what difference does it make what I
charge or what you pay or what I put on it? If we both agree, it's a
done deal. There can be no benefit to regulating that. Cable TV is
not like food. You can easily live without it. If you don't like the
bargain offered, don't buy it. If your kids watch too much, get rid of
it. I don't care if the Cable companies charge $200/month. As far as
I can tell, there would be no harm at all in that.
(*) If someone really thinks this is the issue, I would argue that
regulating cable TV content based on using an easement is about the
same as taxing all of the ink that goes to the Washington Times since
it was transported on public highways.