This, Too, Shall Not Pass
The opponents of the FCC's new media rules got another big headline last week, but we hope that is all they got.
The Senate vote to nullify the FCC's new ownership regulations, the work of the better part of two years, and at Congress' behest no less, is a salute to the power of the Internet. The medium helped generate the grassroots opposition to the rules that gained an undreamed-of momentum. We sense the "public outrage" has abated, and was always far less than advertised, or at least far less broad-based. We attribute much of it to the strange alliance of anti-media forces from the left and right that used the Web to inundate the FCC and Congress with the same message multiplied like digital rip-offs of the latest Harry Potter movie.
Perhaps the House has recognized that, since the word from that quarter is that the veto will not come to a vote there. That's the good news, fingers crossed, of course.
The bad news is that on the second front, the challenge to the FCC's rules in court will remain in Philadelphia. The networks had sought to bring it down to Washington, the court that knows best what it wanted the FCC to do regarding various ownership rules.
An obviously distressed Michael Powell used words like "perverse" and "chaos" to describe the Senate resolution. He pointed out that one unintended casualty of the veto would be the new rule meant to close a radio ownership loophole. Powell said he hoped the House takes "a more considered view of the public interest." We hope the Philadelphia court does as well.
There may be arguments over what is holding up the digital transition, but one thing is certain: If a set can't get a digital signal over the air, some portion of the population is going to be left out. The FCC agreed, recognizing the public interest of its standards-setting role, and mandated that new sets should have to receive analog and digital, as TV's in the 60's were required to have UHF as well as VHF tuners.
Yes, it will increase the cost for those who don't need over-the-air tuners. But, as Judge Douglas Ginsburg pointed out last week, there is a societal benefit in speeding the transition, given the government's plans to auction reclaimed spectrum for other services. Unless we can assume that cable will have to carry every digital broadcast signal, we also see the societal benefit of making sure that whatever portion of viewers can't afford cable or don't chose to afford it won't be shortchanged.
Frankly, if the cost of tuners can't be brought down to the FCC's $15 dollar projection—the Consumer Electronics Association says $200—maybe the government will have to step in and pitch in a few bucks to help subsidize it. The government pays farmers not to grow crops, we see no reason why it shouldn't pay to grow the next generation of television.