Subsidizing the Digital Television Transition

Congress is debating whether and how much to subsidize technology that would allow Americans to receive digital broadcast signals (DTV) when local TV stations stop sending analog signals. Like much of what goes on in Washington, there is far more here than meets the eye. Debates over communications policy rarely enter the “important” arena of public discussion conducted by popular newspaper columnists and television pundits. So it was an unusual move for George Will, a conservative columnist who has made a very good living in the public arena opining at two “liberal” media institutions, to weigh in on the debate over subsidizing the DTV transition. Despite the fact that this is a battle within his favorite party, Will found the line “No Couch Potato Left Behind” too delicious to resist. Will is apparently outraged at the loss of rugged individualism that he claims has led the GOP to declare TV a “collective right.”

Much of Will’s outrage is borrowed from Heritage Foundation scribe James Gattuso. As far as Gattuso is concerned, it is as simple as this: “There is no federal entitlement to analog television, nor should there be one.” And the reason Congress is violating this simple principle is because “Lawmakers fear the wrath of angry viewers suddenly unable to tune into their favorite shows.” Imagine our elected representatives concerned about angry voters! What has the nation come to?

What the nation has come to is a one-party state able to reward the rich and cut, without hesitation, benefits to the sort of folks who may have trouble affording a new digital television set. That Congress could cut funds for food stamps and school loans but provide subsidies for television viewers regardless of income suggests things are a little more complicated than either Will or Gattuso suggests. It is simply not serious to suggest that the Republican majority is concerned about either the fate or anger of poor couch potatoes. What then is behind the subsidy for DTV viewers?

As Joel Brinkley details in his book Defining Vision: How Broadcasters Lured the Government into Inciting a Revolution in Television, in the mid-1980s the television industry became concerned about an increasing demand for access to the electromagnetic spectrum (the public airwaves) and the impact on their business from cable operators offering many channels with alternative programming. This concern led to the development of DTV and the ability of broadcasters to send both clear (“high-definition”) digital pictures and several channels at once (“multi-cast”). In 1996, Congress gave existing television broadcasters additional spectrum to send DTV, with the understanding that they would soon transition from the spectrum they were using for analog TV. Now, ten years later, the factors that led to the development of digital television are still with us.

As Thomas Friedman has written with some alarm in The World Is Flat, our competitors in Europe and Asia are using spectrum to send robust digital signals for computer and telecommunications applications far in advance of what is available to Americans. American business (particularly the computer industry), American educational institutions, American health care providers, American emergency responders, even the American military is calling for additional spectrum, and the spectrum they most covet is the spectrum the broadcasters now occupy. Congress is listening to these influential and wealthy voices, and so has set April 7, 2009 as what Senator Ted Stevens calls “the date for absolute transition” for DTV.

The fact that this date comes after the NCAA finals suggests Congress is also listening to the influential and wealthy broadcasting lobby. Broadcasters are excited about the fact that digital television (DTV) allows them to multicast; this gives them the ability to compete more effectively with cable and other providers of multiple signals. The broadcasters argue that unless lawmakers step in to ensure that American consumers have access to digital television signals, millions of Americans (as many as 20.5 million) will be “disenfranchised.” Broadcasters are not only calling for a digital set-top box subsidy, they are also calling for an obligation that cable and satellite “must carry” their multiple signals.

As the Chicago Tribune reported, the executive director of budget watchdog group the Concord Coalition, Robert Bixby, sees some justification for helping poor people buy digital converter boxes, but adds: “When the government subsidizes anything, it usually goes to people who don't need it. I suspect that will be the case here.”

To be kind, what Congress is contemplating subsidizing is the manufacture of digital set-top boxes to bolster the competition between broadcasters and the cable and satellite industries. Competition is a good idea. Support for redundant services capable of providing warnings in case of emergencies is a good idea. But lost in all this is any clear sense from Congress of just what the public interest means in the digital age, and this returns us again to Mr. Will.

In a characteristic bit of old-fashioned revisionism, Will argues against the set-top box subsidy by arguing that the Founding Fathers “formulated America's philosophy of individualism and self-reliance and … embodied that philosophy – or thought they did – in a constitutional architecture of limited government.” It might surprise Will to know that James Madison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, among others, actually formulated a philosophy of government subsidies to encourage communications. While the Founding Fathers were generally united against a standing army or entanglement in foreign disputes, they built a vast and robust communications system, the Post, under the control of government. And they subsidized the carriage of newspapers even to the territories. But then the Founding Fathers were subsidizing a republic of engaged, communicating citizens, not a society of individual consumers.

Perhaps Congress might reconsider a set of policies that does not respond only to the influential and wealthy voices of the various segments of the communications industry, but actually considers what would best develop a republic of engaged citizens.

Mark Lloyd is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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