It's a Winning Year for US Broadcasters

Washington hands old-line TV networks gains over cable and telecom rivals - at the viewing public's expense

This has been a lush spring for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), perhaps the finest in its 74-year history. The NAB, the chief lobbying arm of US television and radio networks and most of the nation's broadcast stations, has accumulated a string of triumphs that preserves "old technology's" standing as the towering power of telemedia amid the putative gales of digital change. It is as though the White House, the Congress, and the courts conspired in favor of the sailing vessel and the biplane to put off for decades the ages of steam and jet propulsion.

Because of NAB victories, broadcast firms are poised to win the new-technology competition for mass audiences in the tele-industrial epoch against the behemoths of the telephone, cable, computer, and satellite communications industries. Network owners - Westinghouse, Disney, General Electric, Fox - are able to use their cash cows as a wedge into leadership of the age of new media. They are diversifying by acquiring cable and Internet properties, and moving aggressively into global television. In recent weeks:

* The Federal Communications Commission predictably voted to give each of the nation's 1,500 TV stations, most of them commercial, new channels for advanced digital television and other uses. Though the broadcast spectrum is, by statute, public property, the government exacted no quid pro quos from the for-profit operators. Stations can claim the new channels at once, simply by saying they want one. Network stations in major markets must agree to start broadcasting digital signals within two years.

* The Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, affirmed the law holding that cable systems must carry the signals of local television stations. Amid a scramble for scarce channel space, the cable industry lost its argument that it had a First Amendment right to decide how to dole out its territory. The justices thus maintained a competitive edge for broadcasters, preserving the large audiences that cable delivers to traditional broadcasters.

* The broadcasting industry celebrated the first anniversary of the Telecommunications "Reform" Act, which the NAB succeeded in expanding from a set of ground rules for competing telephone enterprises into a giant Christmas tree for the easy acquisition of radio and television stations. The act has touched off a race toward monopoly in broadcasting that is likened to the Oklahoma land rush.

All this has lofted the NAB, already a powerhouse, to the top of Washington special interests. The NAB, together with major broadcast interests, paid $9.5 million in campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures over the past 10 years to win what Common Cause calls "the largest corporate welfare giveaway" in US history.

The NAB was founded back in 1923 by pioneer Chicago radio stations. They wanted to mount a defense against claims by ASCAP, the society that represents the rights of composers, that the stations owed fees for the privilege of playing ASCAP music. The NAB countered with a claim that what the stations were doing was a charitable act that boosted music sales for the songwriters.

Through seven decades, tactics have not changed, but rhetoric has gotten even slicker as the stakes have grown. The NAB is the successful promoter to mass media of what it calls "free broadcasting," even though each man, woman, and child in America pays substantially for air and cable amusement via advertising costs buried by sponsors in the price of their consumer goods and services. The NAB is the prime advocate of the supposed First Amendment rights of its members to air virtually whatever they wish, though the Founding Fathers had citizens, not media corporations, in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights. Now the NAB has achieved its ultimate aim of essentially nullifying the legal obligation of station owners to serve the public interest in return for their broadcast licenses.

The NAB cries about the high costs of digital conversion and attacks the accuracy of a ratings system that shows an ongoing erosion of network audiences. It leads the charge against parents, children's advocates, and educators who complain about violent programming. It does so brashly, knowing that its influence has probably given broadcasters a lock on evolutionary changes in electronic mass communication.

The electron is to the tele-industrial epoch what oil, steel, and coal were to the age of heavy industry. And dominance over electronic party lines carries with it unparalleled political, cultural, and economic power - over public opinion, the public mood, our political life, our spare time, the education and value formation of our children. The question now is whether what's good for the NAB is really good for America.

* Jerry M. Landay is Honors Prof. emeritus at the University of Illinois and a former ABC and CBS news correspondent.

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