As Broadcasters “Threaten” to Shut Down, They’re Not Getting the Reaction They Were Looking For

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The fantastically-mustachioed Chase Carey of News Corp. has gotten quite a bit of support in the broadcast community for his "threat" to shut down Fox's over-the-air signals. Fox, CBS, Univision and others have said if they're not able to make antenna-rental services like Aereo illegal, then they'll simply convert to some sort of vaguely-specified "subscription model" where, presumably, rooftop and remote antennas would not be able to pick up their programming.

But I'm not sure that the support and applause directed his way from some circles is quite as welcome. Mike Masnick's reaction was typical of the tech-literate crowds I run in. He writes,

No networks are stupid enough to shut down over this, and if they are, good riddance. Put that spectrum to better use.

After all, this way of thinking goes, most people don't even watch broadcast signals. They watch broadcast programming as carried by cable and satellite TV programmers, or online, and it is difficult to see why the creation and distribution of this programming requires that we dedicate hundreds of megahertz of prime spectrum to signals whose main purpose is to be captured by pay TV services. Why not simplify things and have NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and the rest simply set up like cable channels like CNN and Comedy Central? The traditional broadcast business model developed from the 1920s through the 1950s and it's not a law of nature that it has to stick around forever. If it shut down, we would free up the airwaves for more modern uses, such as wireless broadband Internet access, smart electric meter monitoring, or a nationwide public safety network. Maybe we could use the freed-up airwaves to control our personal drones, send designs to our 3D printers, and trade Bitcoins back and forth. The possibilities are endless.

I'm being facetious because most people realize the broadcasters are making empty threats, calculated to serve a political purpose. They are not pre-announcing business plans. Even though--horrors--people might be able to watch over-the-air TV via antenna services like Aereo, the business case for broadcasting remains strong. So strong, in fact, that if Fox and others don't want to be in the broadcasting business then others would be happy to take over their licenses and keep on providing the service. It's not necessary to cheer the end of broadcasting to welcome the prospect of the end of Fox. Fox's licenses can be transferred over to PBS, Pacifica, EWTN, or the History Channel who might be glad to have them.

Apart from the business absurdity of broadcasters petulantly shutting down rather than accepting an unfavorable court ruling, there are legal absurdities as well. After all, as I've alluded to, if Fox doesn't use its licenses to provide a free TV service to the public, then the FCC will take them away and give (or auction) them to someone else. Fox has no property interest in the public airwaves, and it is granted permission to use them only to the extent that it serves "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." It couldn't use its spectrum licenses to provide a subscription service even if it wanted to--and I'd argue that keeping broadcasting going, while deliberately starving it of high-value content like live sports would also constitute a violation of the public trust. Additionally, while Fox and the other networks do own and operate many TV stations across the county, many more are separately-owned affiliates. These stations would surely find something else to carry if the major networks decided to abandon them.

Finally, in this wonky policy debate, let's not overlook the people who still rely on broadcast TV. As Brian Stelter reported,

Lost amid all this saber-rattling is the sobering fact that millions of Americans receive television via only antennas, and would be cut off if the television industry moves toward a pay model. As Bill Reyner, the owner of the Fox station in Rapid City, S.D., said to The Associated Press on Tuesday, "The real loser in all of this are those that can’t afford pay TV."

Although Internet enthusiasts such as myself are sometimes accused of overlooking the continuing relevance of traditional broadcasting for many communities, it's important to keep in mind that the debate right now is highly theoretical. Surely broadcasting as it exists today, like many technologies, will one day be supplanted. By the time that happens few people may care: It could be seen as a minor change, similar to when the FCC eliminated the requirement for amateur radio operators to know Morse code. For now, it should suffice to say that even the most starry-eyed technology optimists are aware that the principle of universal access to information and communications remains important, and to point out that revenues raised from an auction of all the broadcast spectrum would probably be enough to buy every over-the-air viewer a free cable subscription for life. In other words, there are options, and no one should be cut off.

Chase Carey and his supporters may have thought they were taking a tough stand in their threat to shut down their broadcast operations. But in reality they've simply laid bare the increasing anachronism of their business model, and they've shown a dismissive attitude toward the public they are supposed to serve. Broadcasters need to make sure they continue to serve the public interest by providing free, high-quality programming on the airwaves that the American people have entrusted to them. If they get bored of doing this that's their right, but they shouldn't expect to continue squatting on the public's airwaves when there are so many other things that could be done with them.

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