Anarchy for the masses

Maybe it's about time to start a movement to get the government to butt out of allocating broadcast licenses. Let's leave it to the market
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The court debacle over the sale of PBS affiliate KOCE-TV in Orange County, CA, is probably now well-known to most broadcasters. In essence, a court said that the 2004 sale of the station to a foundation that was formed to save the station through long-term funding was not legal. The case was brought by Daystar, a televangelist group based in Texas with worldwide coverage through terrestrial and satellite links. Daystar had offered a belated $40 million for the station.

The idea that a non-commercial license can be changed from public broadcasting content to religious content begs the imagination. But, unfortunately, the FCC fails to define any classes of non-commercial programming, and it leaves the door wide open for this kind of change to take place.

Maybe it's about time to start a movement to get the government to butt out of allocating broadcast licenses. Let's leave it to the market.

Chaos, right? Absolutely not. During the late 1970s, I watched just such a situation unfold. At that time, my hottest market was Italy, where video piracy went from nothing to a point where every VHF/UHF channel was filled in only a few months. Quite often the pirate used a Sony U-matic connected directly to a modulator that fed an antenna on a residential roof. Once you found a clear channel in your city, you had to stay on the air 24/7, or someone else would grab it. Most of the material was porn, and the whole thing was a rebellion about the lousy programming that the state broadcaster had fobbed off on the public for many years. Viewers had no alternatives to Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) unless they happened to live in an area where they could pick up a French or Swiss transmitter.

At first, RAI waged war on these people with the relevant Italian Ministry, tracking down the stations and seizing their paltry equipment in attempts to keep the pirates off the air. They would even steal RAI's channels at night when the network shut down. Policing was impossible as the pirates multiplied day after day. At the zenith, you could find something on every channel in both Milan and Rome. RAI attempted to respond by airing 24/7 and with a lot more raunchy shows to try to keep its audience.

The better pirates wanted more professional equipment to improve their signal quality and broaden their coverage, and it was a broadcast equipment manufacturer's dream market. Some of the stations were even making their own programs — the most popular being saucy game shows. And then the almost unbelievable happened: the creation of the first pirate TV network throughout Italy. It was called Canale Cinque and was owned by Silvio Berlusconi, now prime minister. To move from anunlicensed pirate to running a country is like a story straight out of an opera.

Later on, I waited three days in a Milan hotel, most of the time in the bar, for Berlusconi to grant my boss and me an audience — which he finally did.

The piracy spawned an incredible VHF/UHF TV transmitter industry in Italy, now major competition in some sectors for U.S.-based manufacturers. Thus, the continuing presence on the floor of NAB.

So anarchy can work — in fact, I'm tempted to say anarchy always works. Out of the chaos comes order, as with everything. I would be in favor of such a move to change the broadcasting landscape, and I'm sure the FCC could be overwhelmed within months. The FCC is currently ignoring a large number of VHF/FM pirates and only seems to move slowly when a license holder complains of interference.

Maybe now really is the time to build that transmitter in the garage that has been in my mind's eye for years.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

Send questions and comments to:paul_mcgoldrick@primediabusiness.com