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Cable Television Is Not A Civil Right

CongressTelevisionLegislationWhen did cable television become a civil right?

Senator McCain and Kevin Martin are advocating government “solutions” to encourage a la carte programming. They believe that cable should be offered on a per channel basis. On a strictly logic basis, I agree with them. However, their argument inserts the heavy hand of government into my television habits and that is more repellent to me than paying for channels I don’t watch.

The fact is, I don’t often watch broadcast television. I’m a fan of Lost, the Monday night line up on CBS (with the exception of that stupid Christine show) and My Name Is Earl. other than that, I could care less about the broadcast line up. So I choose to subscribe to cable.

That’s the key phrase… I choose to subscribe. They have offered me a product and I decided to buy it. I have also chosen to subscribe to Satellite radio. I looked at what was available for free, found it lacking, and bought a better alternative.

Neither of these was a forced purchase, and neither of the products was government subsidized. As a result, I don’t expect the government to step in and negotiate a better deal for me. Further, I am afraid of a government that feels it needs to do that.

If a product or service has value to me, and the asking price is equal to or less than the price they’re asking, I will buy it. If it is higher, I won’t. If they raise the price, and it exceeds my assessment of it’s worth, I will cancel my subscription.

The government, quite some time ago, decided that television was a conduit to educate and enlighten the citizens (despite evidence that the populace is actually getting dumber with every passing moment in front of it), so they regulated the airwaves and what could be shown on them.

Some enterprising men and women wanted programming that was different, and less restricted. They contracted with programmers to create new shows that would be distributed over a closed, subscription based loop. That model was a huge hit. Now, most people choose to subscribe because the programming is superior and the picture is better.

Television is not a fundamental right. It is not guaranteed by the Constitution. Broadcast television – that relies on the public airwaves – is regulated by government. Cable systems, however, are run over private networks, built with private investment. They pay fees for the land they “rent” from the local governments. So they are not a consumer of public goods, they are, in fact, a source of revenue for cities (to the tune of more than $2 billion per year).

Had government stayed out of the regulation game in the first place, there is a good possibility that more effort would have been placed on ways to broadcast media more clearly, on more channels, and those channels would be available to everyone. Instead, they stifled innovation, killed a medium, and watched a new industry emerge in absence of their short-sighted broadcast regulations.

Now the government is back. Again they tell us they are acting in the interest of the people. They’re advocating more regulation that assumes the government is better at creating a business model than the entrepreneurs in America. They assume they know more about the delivery of cable television than the people who have spent their lives making it work.

All of this is being done under this unspoken belief that people have some sort of right to cable TV. That was also the underlying assumption of the broadcast regulation and look at how well that has worked? In the almost 80 years since the first TV license was granted, we have 5 networks who all hold a declining share of the viewing audience.

In the roughly 55 years since the first cable television system began operating, they have grown to more than 500 programming networks on nearly 8,000 cable systems serving nearly 60% of all homes.

That alone should tell government that the private sector knows better how to create an economically viable product. That alone should tell the government that interference by ill-conceived regulatory regimes can destroy a business easier than it can create one.

(Disclaimer: While I work for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, this post should in no way be construed as an official position of the Association. Thoughts in this space are mine and mine alone and do not reflect the views of my employer.)

Written by Michael Turk