TV in 10 Years

The movement to kill free, over-the-air TV service has never been as intense as it is right now. The administration has aligned fully with the telco and computer lobbies that have been trying to wrench spectrum away from broadcasting for years. The effort started years ago with the move toward digital transmission. It advanced more recently when the fed allowed unlicensed communications devices in TV buffer channels. Now there’s talk of further displacement to free spectrum up for wireless broadband.

It coincides with the single most difficult period in the broadcast industry. Broadcasters are hurting from multiple blows. The just-completed DTV transition cost them millions. The implosion of the auto industry cut revenues by a quarter. Some bankrupt broadcast companies are now in the hands of lenders. The industry’s down. There’s no better time to kick it if the intent is to finish it off, which seems to be the case.

The movement to kill free TV emanates from Washington, D.C., not into it. People aren’t walking around wearing “Kill free TV” T-shirts. No one in Fon du Lac, Wisc., is demanding TV spectrum for wireless broadband. No one, anywhere, is itching to spend even more on household communications. No one paying the bills, that is. There’s a persistent notion that 20-somethings want everything via online mobile devices. That may be, but it’s the rare 20-something these days that doesn’t live with mom and dad.

Many studies will be bandied about in this battle. FCC commissioner Michael Copps will sniff about public-interest obligations and whether broadcasters deserve to use the airwaves. The typically powerful pro business forces in Washington will check their shoelaces because the companies going after the spectrum can afford some pretty hefty campaign contributions.

Words like “innovation” will be used a lot, and the prognosticated economic benefits will run into the trillions. Ultimately, someone will proffer that allowing broadcast television to continue will cost countless lives. It’s been done before.

Hype and mud will fly. The bottom line is that Verizon, AT&T, Google and Microsoft can make more money off of those airwaves than 1,700-some local TV stations. Monthly subscriptions-plus-ad revenues trumps ad revenues alone as far as Wall Street is concerned. Wireless broadband promises better earnings per share than broadcasting—for those who own shares. For everyone else, it will mean higher monthly subscription fees for Internet service and for TV. Free, over-the-air TV service is the sole alternative to a single pay provider in most areas.

And when it’s gone, it won’t be back.