SEN. Bob Dole is half right in his crusade against corporate welfare in commercial broadcasting. He says the precedent of free use of the nation's airwaves by commercial-station operators should end. That puts him in lock-step with President Clinton on the issue. But both are one step shy. They treat the public air as simply another tangible asset. Despite their talk about higher standards, TV, to them, is another commodity to be traded for cash.
In a carefully scripted assault, Dole has said TV stations should pay for the privilege of being awarded another channel for their switch-over to advanced, digital TV. The new technology can send pictures of breathtaking quality to sets able to receive the digital signals. Or, through compression, stations may choose to air six different program signals, not just one, on the advanced channel - giving them the potential for six sources of revenue, not just one.
The idea is that stations would continue to air their programs as before on regular, analog channels. But they would simultaneously supply profitmaking programs and services over their digital channel. Viewers would continue to receive analog service until they acquired new digital receivers, or converters, for their sets.
Stations want to retain their analog channels for other unspecified uses at the end of this transition period. Pending legislation doesn't require that they give them back.
The stations, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters, one of the most powerful political lobbies in Washington, have been using public airwaves free of charge since the 1920s. That's when the federal government first began regulating mass broadcasting - at the industry's request.
Broadcasting, a $40-billion-a-year business, has gotten used to having it all. It has gotten a better deal than mine operators, foresters, or ranchers who operate on federal lands. They grudgingly pay nominal sums to the Treasury for their use of public property.
But now Dole has taken on the broadcasters. On the Senate floor, he said:
''Let me get this straight. America lends the broadcasters a national resource so they can increase their profit margin, but they do not think it fair to pay rent.''
Among the ideas discussed for the kind of ''rent'' broadcasters should pay:
* A one-time channel auction.
* An annual ''spectrum fee'' based on revenues.
* A federal tax on advertising income.
* A license transfer tax on the sale of station properties.
Dole reportedly favors an auction. The government take would ostensibly flow into the general fund of the US Treasury. Both Dole and Clinton seem to agree that the revenue ought to be used to help balance the federal budget.
Assessing the auction value of the airwaves, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates their value conservatively at $12.5 billion. Federal Communications Commission officials place their worth at $40 billion. Other estimates range as high as $70 billion, with their long-term value to the industry somewhere in the trillions of dollars. Other communication companies have so far paid $90 billion in auction proceeds to the federal government for pieces of broadcast real estate, known as frequencies, over which they provide wireless pager, phone, and data transmission services.
Dole told New York Times columnist William Safire that the broadcasting industry's campaign to get ATV (advanced television) channels for free ''is a big, big corporate-welfare project. Here, we're cutting Medicaid and doing all the painful things while we lend them the spectrum.... Why shouldn't they pay for it?''
Since the channels are, by statute, public property, why shouldn't the proceeds be dedicated to putting the vision back in television - to enhancing culture, communities, child-rearing, and the public mind? Why should the process be limited to a one-time auction, rather than an annual-use fee? The revenue could be dedicated to a National Endowment for Telecommunications, which would help to fund:
r Public radio and TV.
r Community public-access channels on cable.
r Telecommunications equipment and facilities for schools and libraries.
r Independent creators and artists, especially those who produce educational TV for young people.
r Access to the telecommunications age for families too poor to afford the admission price.
Dole's position jeopardizes prospects for the pro-industry telecommunications-reform bill, which bestows the ATV frequencies on the stations gratis. He is willing to risk the wrath of commercial broadcasters at a time when access to their news broadcasts is essential to his presidential campaign
His stand is consistent with his broadsides against media violence-and-sex merchants, ''who cultivate moral confusion for profit.'' Yet he has not disavowed right-wing efforts to ''zero out'' the quality services of public broadcasting.
Clinton also has breathed rhetorical fire at the seaminess of commercial content. Like Dole, he views the broadcasting spectrum as a cash cow for government, not as a cultural fire that can light our way in the darkness. Unlike Dole, the president would give the digital channels to broadcasters without charge but auction off their abandoned analog channels by 2002, the year the federal budget is supposed to be in balance. Clinton would dedicate the CBO's estimated $12.5 billion to the balancing process.
As long as politicians make short-sighted deals over the ''natural resource'' that has become a ''wasteland'' but which could serve as what E.B. White called ''a saving radiance,'' they will reduce the national culture to wilderness and deny us the sky.