Must-See TV?

Talk about David and Goliath! Always courageous Sen. John McCain is taking on the most powerful lobby currently influencing Congress - network broadcasters.

He's fighting against what last year was a lopsided 408-to-16 majority in the House favoring the broadcasters.

And he seems to be heading for defeat in less than two weeks time.

On April 1 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is scheduled to allot free to TV broadcasters frequencies worth an estimated $20 billion to $50 billion at auction.

Senator McCain wants an auction. He's right. Deep down, many of his colleagues must realize it's inconsistent to talk about (1) balancing the budget, (2) ending "corporate welfare," and (3) reforming campaign finance, and then to support this expensive giveaway. Remember, the current ruckus over campaign finance stems from all those billions spent on TV ads.

To say that McCain is right is not to say broadcasters are villains. They're not. Like bankers, doctors, farmers, unions, and other interest groups, TV moguls (and station owners) try to grab every asset they legally can. But the history of broadcast licensing makes it clear that finite airwave frequencies are a resource intended for the public good.

In the beginning, at the start of the 20th century, there were only intrepid wireless operators using a slice of the airwaves to aid safety at sea. Then a slice went to radio stations, licensed as long as they met standards of public service. But the uses of radio waves multiplied like amoeba: FM, TV, UHF-TV, police, fire, cell phone service, pagers, direct broadcast satellite TV - and, coming soon (?), high definition TV (HDTV) and widespread wireless phone service.

HDTV is, in fact, the ostensible reason for handing out extra airwaves. This digital technology, which will make it possible to see every dimple on a golf ball and every hair on George Costanza's head, will demand major equipment investment by networks and stations before most of their viewers invest in new TV sets.

So the FCC supposedly has to lure broadcasters with free channel space. That argument has been undermined by broadcasters who may instead use the new frequencies for multiple new non-HDTV channels (or perhaps wireless phone service) - big new revenue sources. If you have any doubt that there's big money here, remember the $19 billion Disney paid for ABC.

Meanwhile, deficit reduction, campaign reform, defense modernization, and, ultimately, you, the taxpayer, will be out of pocket all those lost billions. Perhaps it's time to nudge your lawmaker to listen to Senator McCain.

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