Over-the-air TV is under attack

TV under attackThe perfect complement to FTA TV is over-the-air (OTA) TV, and OTA is under attack. The FCC is talking about selling some of the OTA TV spectrum to folks who will use it for broadband internet. An op-ed column in The New York Times last week suggested that we should sell off all OTA TV spectrum. For folks who get free TV now, the column says that most can get cable or satellite pay-TV, then suggests that the FCC could require “a low-cost service that carries only local channels.”

This is crazy on several levels. Folks who love high-quality video know that OTA HD is usually much better than what cable or satellite provides. Folks who honestly cannot afford to waste even $20 a month on TV entertainment will not benefit if their free TV is taken away from them. And the idea that weather emergencies are best communicated via cable? When I had cable, the way I knew there was a storm in progress was that my cable had cut out.

There are some people who really want to get all of that juicy, wall-penetrating TV spectrum to use for their own commercial projects. Those airwaves belong to all of us, and I don’t want to see free OTA TV go away just to enable the latest internet access flavor of the month.

And while I’m talking OTA, another hot topic is retransmission fees. If a cable or satellite TV company wants to carry an OTA station, it has to pay a fee that it negotiates with that station. (If the company doesn’t want to carry an unpopular station, then the station can insist to be carried for free.) Every time the retransmission contracts come up for renewal, there’s a good chance for public posturing and the occasional loss of a channel to the company’s subscribers.

I’ll skip over the idea that because OTA stations use our public airwaves at very little cost, maybe they should be free to everyone. Given that retransmission fees are appropriate, the current system is inefficient and hurts viewers. The chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee says maybe a station should have to show that the cable or satellite company is bargaining in bad faith before it yanks its signal away. That’s not the right answer, either.

When an internet broadcaster streams music, it doesn’t have to negotiate with each song’s publisher. When a jukebox operator changes records, it doesn’t have to figure how much to pay each songwriter. The stakeholders in these cases negotiated mechanical royalties, ensuring that all sides get fair terms without having to bargain about every transaction.

That’s exactly what retransmission consent needs: a negotiated national contract. Fees could be based on size of market, audience share, the end-user’s bill, or any other appropriate factors. It could be tied to the cost-of-living index, it could have negotiated yearly increases, or it could just be reopened for fresh national negotiations every five years or so. The stations would get what’s fair, cable and satellite companies would get some cost assurance, and viewers could be sure that they’d get all the local channels that they’d paid for. Too easy?