Another government entitlement

I've been saying for years that the federal government would make receiving TV a right — an entitlement. But no, many of you wrote to tell me I was wrong. Receiving TV would never become a freebie funded by Uncle Sam. Yes it will!

FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree recently confirmed that the only thing standing in the way of taking back the analog spectrum was meeting the 85 percent-reception rule. That's the requirement that says 85 percent of the audience must be capable of receiving digital television signals.

Broadcasters had been operating under the assumption that, until 85 percent of their audience could receive OTA DTV, they'd have a lock on their analog channels. And, as most in this industry know, it takes a long time for viewers to replace their receivers. This meant that we'd have analog around for years to come.

But, in typical government parlance, if you can't win playing by the rules, just change the rules. The FCC is poised to change the rules, and the score will be politicians 1, broadcasters 0.

Eager to get their hands on the money that might be generated by TV-spectrum sales, politicians have been kicking the FCC to move things along faster. Here's where two significant rule changes come in.

First, what if, instead of just OTA reception, the FCC counted digital cable toward that 85 percent figure? That's exactly what Michael Powell's commission has proposed. Currently, the idea is awaiting a full commission vote. If the FCC approves the plan, broadcasters would have until Oct. 11, 2008, to elect either cable carriage of their signals in analog format or full-digital carriage — but not both.

Any station electing for digital cable carriage would see an immediate reduction in audience because only those viewers with DTV receivers (or digital cable) would be able to receive their signal. And, those stations that elected for analog downconversion would keep whatever cable audience they had — but would be unable to provide them with digital service.

Broadcasters used to think that such a cutoff plan wouldn't work because approximately 17 percent of viewers still get their television from OTA signals — virtually all in analog. Turning off the analog transmitters would doom those viewers to no television. Do you think politicians are going to take away granny's TV? No way!

Here's where the second part of the FCC's plan comes in. The government simply declares receiving OTA TV an “entitlement.” Similar to welfare, housing, phones and other services for the poor, the ability to get OTA TV would basically become a civil right. As such, the government would guarantee that if you can't afford a new TV or STB, they would provide it for free. Once again, this is another government giveaway and bureaucratic boondoggle.

What's next? Will it be free HD television sets for the poor? After all, if receiving OTA TV is a “right,” isn't seeing HDTV a right, too? We can't have the poor watching TV on 4:3 non-HD sets — that would be discrimination. Next up will be free HBO and STARZ.

Years ago, I said that the government would declare TV reception a right and provide free receivers. We're now only months away from big brother making that prediction come true. When it does, hang on to your wallet!

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